Risky ventures are often the most rewarding. Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, written with his brother Jonas, was not considered a sure-fire hit when Warner Bros. approved its $105 million budget. Now, however, after a triumphant spell in the US box office, it finally arrives in the UK with a healthy profit, and incredible hype.
The film opens in an understated manner, contrasting with this expectation – a slow, near-silent 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 principal threat emerges: a growing debris storm, the fall-out from 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. The opening shot lasts for an astonishing length of time, and the camera on multiple occasions illustrates perfectly the irony of the title – the total lack of gravity. When Bullock is sent careering off into the distance, we first see her tumbling, with the camera fixed; then we zoom in to a claustrophobic closeness, so the camera becomes fixed instead to her perspective, suddenly driving home the disorientation and dizziness Stone is being forced to endure in 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 that comes to the fore as the film concludes, but this is forgivable for its mass-market appeal. The simplicity of its plot is an issue for some, but is in fact a canny example of the streamlining that 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 insight, but it is nonetheless near unmissable in cinemas. The power of its cinematography and its game-changing approach to the visuals of outer space makes it an undeniable force.
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