Directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
‘Planet earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do’
Gravity is something special – it’s a big-budget studio blockbuster that feels real, personal, direct, even intimate – a rare animal in the film world nowadays. It isn’t part of a franchise, it isn’t a reboot or a sequel, there are no gods or superheroes. Instead, it is a survival story set in space. The movie opens with a warning: “At 600km above planet Earth the temperature fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life in space is impossible.” Then Alfonso Cuarón presents us with the deeply scary scenario of what might happen if someone should accidentally become detached from a spacecraft and then float irreversibly off into the dark silence of space. He shows us the ‘gravity’ of that situation, to take another meaning from the title.
Sandra Bullock plays a scientific engineer, Dr Ryan Stone who, after six months’ NASA training, has been sent into space to attach a new scanning device of her own invention to the Hubble Telescope. On her space walk she is under the supervision of Matt Kowalski, a genial, seasoned space veteran played by George Clooney, calm and relaxed where Bullock’s character is nervous and ill at ease. The voice of Houston mission control is Ed Harris (in homage to Ron Howard’s 1995 space-disaster classic Apollo 13). Beneath them glows the luminous orb of the Earth, giving the early scenes a dreamy, ethereal quality, with long, fluid shots that hold us enthralled in an entirely different way to Hollywood’s usual rapid edits for viewers with short attention spans.
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” jokes Kowalski, although by the end of the opening shot (which runs unbroken for an astonishing 13 minutes) his fears have proven well-founded. On the other side of the planet, Russia has exploded an obsolete spy satellite and the debris has caused a chain reaction sending shrapnel hurtling towards the astronauts at bullet-speed. When a panicked Houston control aborts the mission, a sudden sense of urgency and menace is introduced and the camera begins to move around without any fixed point – no up or down, no grounding – it is disorienting but absorbing, and gives us a taste of the actual experience.
Soon, a terrifying situation unfolds, piling shock upon shock as Cuarón succeeds in creating both awe at his majestic space vistas and acute tension at what’s happening to the protagonists. The movie draws broadly on the style of a dystopian tradition stretching from Kubrick’s 2001 (1968) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) in that it adopts a low-key, quasi-realistic ambiance. It has flashes of humour, horror and tension, but is without cynicism or satire. It is not, strictly speaking, a sci-fi – it is without monsters, androids, far-fetched gadgetry, or talking computers – it may be more accurately defined as a Space Drama.
For all its technological sophistication, the plot of the movie is basic and primal. Bullock’s character is in a struggle to stay alive against the odds – battling with the elements, fire, air and water, and in the end, she must deal with the weight of gravity itself. It is a masterful performance from Sandra Bullock, her face revealing fear, panic and relief as she confronts her predicament. She becomes gaunt and grey with physical exhaustion and emotional pain when coping with her character’s own personal anguish. When she cries in zero-gravity, with tears floating away from her drawn face, it is a heart-wrenching spectacle. Clooney’s humour, gallantry and courage as Kowalski and Bullock’s yearning as she reveals her character’s personal tragedy, is unexpectedly affecting. As a bereaved, grieving mother, Stone has all but lost her instinct to survive – but the disaster reignites it and pulls her, and us, towards the film’s thrilling finale.
The effects that cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezkihe creates in Gravity are magical. The early scenes, in which we see Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (Clooney) making adjustments to the Hubble Space Telescope, are especially riveting. Filmed at Elstree and Pinewood studios, it is a glorious recreation of outer space that engulfs the viewer, helped by superlative visual effects design from Tim Webber and production design by Andy Nicholson. For the first time the 3D actually adds to the realism rather than feeling like a gimmick (all achieved via a post-production conversion). It pushes the 3D effects beyond Avatar – explaining why James Cameron has dubbed Gravity as “the best space film ever made”.
Gravity will leave you breathless, awed by the silent enormity of space, feeling bruised and buffeted by zero-gravity. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to the experience of being there and it’s a whole lot cheaper and safer than taking up Richard Branson’s offer to send you up in his rocket.
Copyright Ren Zelen (2013)
Please visit Ren’s action and information packed blog, Lethal Lexicon. While there you must sample some of her series Pitchfork Red. If you read just a little, you will be hooked. Part Philip K. Dick and part Raymond Chandler, Pitchfork Red will take you on the science fiction ride of your life. Follow @RenZelen on Twitter for the latest tweets on pop culture and gothic horror along with excellent micro poetry. Ren Zelen is the author of the post-apocalyptic novel, The Hathor Diaries, which is available for Kindle. The Hathor Diaries is cutting-edge science fiction that you will absolutely love. Read my review of The Hathor Diaries. Thank you, Ren, for today’s wonderful article. You are always welcome at Different Outcomes!