“DON’T LET GO” reads the tagline for Gravity, a zero-gravity disaster movie from the versatile Alfonso Cuarón, director of A Little Princess, Y tu Mamá También, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men. It doesn’t quite do the film’s more thrilling sequences justice – as Gravity proves to be one of the most edge-of-your-seat movies to crash into cinemas in decades. “Don’t let go of your seat/jaw/bowels” might have just about captured it, though would not have looked as good on a poster.
Of course, Gravity is not the kind of movie posters sell. This is the kind of movie that gripping, unusual trailers and phenomenal word-of-mouth sell. This is the kind of movie that people say “You have to see it in IMAX 3D”, and rarer yet it’s the kind of movie where people hear that, they listen, and obey.
The film’s cast of barely more than two is led by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Bullock is the awkward science expert who, all things considered, shouldn’t be on space missions in the first place. Clooney is the seasoned astronaut whose cocky attitude makes him oddly endearing and a great source of comfort in a crisis – he’s more or less playing George Clooney in a spacesuit here.
When a shower of ricocheting space debris tears through their space shuttle, Bullock’s Ryan Stone and Clooney’s Matt Kowalski find themselves hurtling through the void above the Earth, traversing chasms of darkness to find shelter, and a passage home, in one of the space stations that litter the heavens.
Taking cues from Alien and far more notably 2001: A Space Odyssey, specifically the sequence following HAL’s attack on Frank, Gravity brilliantly captures the noiseless horror of the vacuum. The lack of gravity is matched tenfold by the crippling silence. In space no one can here you anything.
Steven Price’s score fills in for the dearth of sound effects, synchronised brilliantly to the metallic carnage unfolding as our heroes are ragdolled about space. The music creates the sounds you feel you should be hearing as you silently watch structures shredded (in one disappointing instance Cuarón relies on a sound effect outside a module, but this is the only slip in an otherwise immaculate soundscape). In quieter moments, dramatically speaking, Price’s score overwhelms and forces the emotions – it’s an oddly bipolar composition that works sublimely in parts and rips you from the film in others.
Cuarón and his son Jonás’s screenplay is the weakest note, relying too much on Clooney’s charm to sell the slighter dialogue. Ryan’s personal issues back on Earth never properly tie into the actual disaster drama unfolding, and the personal and religious metaphors that derive from this fall clunkily off the screen – both Christ and Buddha make cameo appearances in moments of great crisis. When an astronaut is found dead, a photograph of his family is preposterously found floating beside him, as if the audience wouldn’t care for this character unless he was a family man. Cuarón has succumbed to Hollywood audience-handholding.
Thematically the film is about as weightless as its characters, floating adrift in space. But where Gravity fails to make a personal punch, it hits with some of the most astonishing visuals ever created for the screen. The demolishing of a space station torn to veritable ribbons of metallic fabric leaves the eyes baffled and dizzied with where to focus. The camera enters the visors of the characters during incredible single-take shots to create action sequences filmed from terrifying first-person perspectives. A flaming bubble of gas floats through the corridor of an orbiting station; later a single tear drop runs off Bullock’s face and blobbishly makes its way towards the camera, accentuated by the often startlingly effective 3D. When the film approaches its most pretentious, a brief moment of womblike comfort that draws further parallels to 2001, the imagery is too brilliantly conceived to make it feel unwarranted.
Gravity is not a terrific movie, but it is an astounding cinematic experience, and will be remembered as such for generations to come. Not since Avatar has there been such an “event movie”, and despite Gravity’s weaknesses, and it has many, it is a considerably more cohesive work than James Cameron’s overblown sci-fi epic. With the exception of one additional action sequence towards the end that oversteps the audience’s suspension of disbelief (and unintentionally draws some laughter), Gravity thrills throughout. The imagery is often borrowed (2001 is all over this), but crafted with such remarkable skill and framed by the endlessly talented cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life) it is a cinematic experience that simply must be seen on the biggest, loudest screen you can find.