This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 6th October 2013
Conveying just how great Gravity is presents two massive challenges: not giving away anything from a very slight plot, and not slipping into hyperbole. But with critics worldwide describing it as “the best evocation of space you’ve ever seen”, reigning in the latter is going to be particularly tricky.
The simplest of premises is usually the best. On a routine mission to repair a space telescope, Commander Matthew Kowalski and Doctor Ryan Stone find themselves separated and one perilously adrift. That’s it. There is no alien; no imminent explosion of the Earth’s core – just the universal fear, resonant in every audience member, that in space not only can no one hear you scream but you can’t scream anyway once you’re out of oxygen. The film’s tagline “Don’t Let Go” says it all.
It is therefore the magnificently cinematic telling of such a straightforward story that hauls Gravity into the stratosphere occupied by 2001: A Space Odyssey but very little else in this genre. (We’re not talking sci-fi per se, or space horror – we’re talking “as close as you can get to What Space Is Really Like”.)
Writer/director Alfonso Cuaron wowed viewers with long, immersive takes in the dystopian Children of Men, and goes the extra mile here with a set-up that will take your breath away. Throwing us straight into life tackled in low Earth orbit, we get up close with first time astronaut Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she fights to keep her lunch down in Zero G while George Clooney’s Kowalski enjoys his final mission, zooming around her on a thruster pack while playing country music.
The opening banter in the script feels a little clichéd – a minor quibble, though, as goodness knows what else one might talk about when 600 kilometres up – but your eyes are gorging on every incredible detail as events rapidly give way to high drama that never lets up. The cinematography is remarkable, delivering intimacy through lingering close-ups that demand a lot from Bullock in particular (all the more impressive considering the actors are seldom acting directly with one another) and the camera performing incredible feats to attain point-of-view shots that bring you right into the action. If you can 3D Imax it, even better.
The score is sensational, especially over long-held shots that are deeply moving – even the obligatory earthbound back-story can be forgiven when one is so far from home. For a blockbuster movie by a Mexican arthouse director, Gravity deserves its accolades – and a second viewing.