Risky ventures are often the most rewarding; Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, written with his brother Jonas, was not considered to be a sure-fire hit when its $105 million budget was approved by Warner Brothers. Now, however, after a triumphal spell in the US box office, it arrives in the UK having already doubled that initial figure, accompanied by incredible hype.
The film opens with understatement to contrast with this expectation – a slow, near-silent establishing shot zooms in on the Hubble telescope, where medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is working under the supervision of her mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Their characters are established in idle chatter, before the film’s principle threat is ushered in: a growing debris storm started by the destruction of a Russian satellite. This cloud of material hits the satellite and the astronauts’ shuttle with devastating force, and forces Stone and Kowalski into desperate attempts to salvage a means to return to Earth.
The first impact of the debris is one of a number of moments in which Gravity manages utterly incredible levels of cinematic immersion, all the more remarkable for the fact of the film’s setting, in space. The detail of the CGI is paired, importantly, with excellent camera-work and direction. That opening shot lasts for an astonishing length of time, and the camera on multiple occasions illustrates perfectly the key irony of the title – the total lack of gravity. When Bullock is sent careening off into the distance, we first see her tumbling, with the camera fixed; then, we zoom in to a claustrophobic closeness, at which point the camera becomes fixed instead to her perspective, suddenly driving home the pure disorientation and dizziness Stone is enduring in this, her first space mission.
Much must also be made of the sound design and mixing of the picture. The space scenes are as devoid of noise as they would be in real life, with the impression deliberately given that the sound we hear is only that which would be picked up by a microphone inside the helmets of our protagonists. Again, this contributes to the phenomenal immersion of the film – only increased by the wise use of 3D; Gravity is one of a select group of films best viewed in 3D, and a wider collection which benefit from as large a screen and booming a sound system as possible.
If a flaw must be found, it is perhaps the overbearing sentimentality which comes into the foreground as the films ends, but this is forgivable given the very wider audience which this film will reach. The simplicity of its plot is an issue for some, but seems a canny example of the streamlining which sees the film concentrate on its extreme strengths, its tension and the awe which its visuals inspire. Bullock’s central performance is utterly capable, though this is not a character piece of much depth, and Clooney is as reliable as in recent years.
Gravity is not a film of particular depth or insight, but it is nonetheless one which is close to unmissable in cinemas. The power of its cinematography, paired with its game-changing approach to the visuals of films set in space, make it an undeniable force.