GRAVITY is equal parts wonderment, sheer terror and life affirmation. The ever-reliable Alfonso Cuarón has crafted a aesthetically flawless, hypnotic space horror that manages to be intimate and epic at the same time.
The story is pleasingly stripped back. Scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is floating above the earth with a team of astronauts helping to conduct routine repairs to a satellite. Stray debris turns their mission into a catastrophe, ripping their shuttle apart and hurling Stone and space cowboy Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) into the black abyss. Will they survive the void and make it home? It’s that simple. Or is it?
The visuals are awe-inspiring. From the very first shot of the film, an extended look at our one and only Blue Planet looking all placid and inviting, through to the nail-bitingly tense disaster sequence to the contemplative, eerie scenes taking in the imposing darkness of space. The sheer quality of everything your eyeballs can digest is worth the ticket price alone, especially in 3D. The visuals will get you in the seat, but the insightful character moments will keep you there, and ensure the film stays with you.
Bullock’s Ryan Stone is a brilliant creation, and ultimately it’s her that makes the film so remarkable. It might sound a bit glib, but she’s such a human protagonist. Flawed and sympathetic, capable of both remarkable endurance and mind-blowing ineptitude. You’re reminded from the start when we see Ryan in a fearful trance, clinging for her life to the satellite she’s repairing, that this is no astronaut. She’s an Earth woman, and is completely out of her comfort zone in zero-gravity. She’s gone to space because she has the right set of skills for the task at hand, and to escape the regret-filled, unfulfilled routine of her existence. We witness a cycle of Ryan dropping essential tools, losing her grip on things, crash painfully into space debris – these scenarios are repeated, only each time the situation is a whole lot more dire. Every time you think it couldn’t possibly be any worse, it gets worse.
Bullock re-affirms her versatility as both a skilled dramatic and comic actor. She completely sells Ryan’s panic, her emotional and physical turmoil, but she also makes her warm and self-deprecating and funny. As horrifying and hopeless as her situation becomes, you can see Ryan kicking herself for being a bit of a clutz, for botching her training and, short of rolling her eyes and asking “why me”, she seems to accept by the end that she’s just having a really bad day. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, but Bullock aces it.
Clooney’s Matt, makes for a nice contrast to Ryan when he’s on-screen. He’s a cool, methodical, wise-cracking veteran, the complete antithesis of Ryan. If he wasn’t in a vacuum, he’d be strutting, and Clooney seems to almost be poking a bit of gentle fun at his go-to character persona. The first half hour or so of the film hinges on this relationship working, and it does so very well. We, like Ryan, feel safer when Matt is around, but the film becomes a far more interesting affair when he isn’t, when it’s just Ryan and the audience figuring out a way home.
This combination of technical innovation, outstanding performances encouraged by masterful direction, in addition to the care and thought that has gone into making every frame beautiful, makes Gravity something you seldom see – art and entertainment in perfect balance.
Gravity is the best film I’ve seen this year by quite a margin. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen in the last decade, and I’ll be frothing at the mouth if it doesn’t get recognition for anything outside the technical categories come Oscar season. I’m not asking for a clean sweep, just some nominations acknowledging that something other than a grounded drama about “issues” is artistically significant. Science-Fiction and Horror films famously don’t do well at prestige awards events, and Gravity is both in addition to being a high-concept disaster thriller, so though I hope it won’t be snubbed, I’m not optimistic. Maybe the Academy will be swayed by the “troubled woman overcoming adversity” thing they seem to love so much. SSP