Dir. Alfonso Cuarón
The first thing that strikes you about Gravity is the silence. The rising cacophony of strings and synths that accompanies its opening credits cuts out abruptly, and the Earth fills the screen, rotating slowly in absolute quiet. It’s about a minute before we hear the first crackling of a distant radio broadcast, and another still before the Hubble Space Telescope drifts sedately into view.
As vistas go, it’s awesome – impressive even in the cosy confines of Screen 2 at the New Picture House – and it introduces us perfectly to the unconventional visual style that will dominate the film for the next 90 minutes. Director Alfonso Cuarón’s digitally positioned camera swoops around a trio of astronauts, which includes Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and lazily arcs through close ups and long shots while the crew exchanges some playful correspondence with mission control.
Things soon change however. A Russian satellite is destroyed, and a field of high-speed debris begins making its way inexorably closer to the exposed astronauts. There’s not enough time, and in an instant Cuarón’s stately space ballet is transformed into a maelstrom of screams and shrapnel. Several frenzied minutes ensue, before all suddenly becomes silent once again, with the film tracking Clooney and Bullock’s fraught attempts to return home from then on.
It is the manner in which this mission is portrayed though, that sets Gravity apart from its myriad science-fiction contemporaries. Cuarón has crafted a masterful piece of cinema, indulging his penchant for long takes and allowing his untethered camera to sweep through wreckage and across the Earth’s ever-present horizon one minute, before seamlessly slipping into the confines of a space suit helmet the next. It’s a style that’s deliberately disorienting; overwhelming but constantly compelling. Even the film’s 3D works superbly. A feature so often used as a cheap gimmick helps here to convey the sense of weightlessness evoked by both the setting and the camerawork, supplementing the visuals without distracting from them.
And then there’s the sound. It’s been a long time since a score has managed to conjure such intense sensations of wonder and dread, but composer Steven Price has crafted one of the most aurally arresting accompaniments in recent memory. Synths and horns build towards each new set piece, and are punctured by moments of tranquillity only for the cycle to repeat. This use of sound, combined with the film’s stunning cinematography, makes for a remarkable, exhausting audiovisual experience.
If there is a criticism to be directed at Gravity, it’s that the film does feel light in terms of character and plot. For a two-hander, there’s little depth to be found in either Clooney’s cavalier commander or Bullock’s anxious scientist, though that’s not to say that neither lead gives a good performance – they both do. There are moments of poignancy too; a sequence in which Stone apparently makes radio contact with an Inuit fisherman is particularly touching – a moment of human interaction in a film premised on isolation. But nevertheless, the focus here is so overwhelmingly on atmosphere (pardon the pun), on maintaining the perfect balance between terror and serenity, that it’s no wonder that the film barely allows its characters the space to breathe (I’ll stop now).
And ultimately, it’s a decision that works. Gravity isn’t really concerned with the earthly lives of its protagonists; rather it’s anchored firmly in the present, flowing breathlessly from one scene to the next and never once getting ahead of itself. It’s a film that wants to trigger visceral feelings of hope, fear, calm, and distress in its audience, one that engages the senses more than it does the mind. Quite simply, Gravity wants to thrill, and in that it succeeds magnificently.