Ashley Clark

‘Life is impossible in space’, warns an ominous title card before the start of Alfonso Cuaron’s immersive sci-fi drama Gravity. When we’re introduced to astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) and medical researcher Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), floating in space and beavering away at a project on the Hubble telescope, it soon becomes clear that life is tricky enough back on Earth for both of them. As the mesmerisingly choreographed opening sequence unfolds, we find that wiseacre Kowalsky repeatedly checks into Houston with wry stories of his ex-wife’s cheating; more gravely, we discover that the seemingly unwell Ryan’s 4-year-old daughter has died, and she is still struggling with the grief. Thus it is established fairly early that the central metaphor of Cuaron’s film is outer space as an escape from life’s troubles back home—a state of being where the spatial dislocation is a paradox, simultaneously refuge and prison. This theme provides a constant emotional ballast for the ensuing visual extravaganza.

Though the film is largely quiet and ruminative in tone, Cuaron flaunts his SFX/action sequence chops when a chain reaction from a missile strike sends debris flying through the atmosphere, kills the third (unseen) member of the crew, and separates the pair from their craft. How will Kowalsky and Stone survive out there in the atmosphere, with only cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s ever-mobile camera to keep them company? And will they find that inner resolve to get back to Earth?

It would be wrong to give away too much with regards to plot, but it’s no spoiler to reveal that throughout Cuaron marries keen character-based observation with extraordinary (if pleasingly understated) technical feats. As in his atmospheric evocation of dystopia, Children of Men (2006), he orchestrates a series of long—but never showy—takes to build a mood of ineffable tension and create a palpably claustrophobic sense of space. Lubezki’s unmoored, constantly prowling camera is simultaneously viscerally exciting to behold, and the perfect complement for the emotional flux experienced by the characters. Here, too, the use of 3D is truly justified, adding an almost confounding depth to the already impressive visuals. When space-debris flies toward us, we flinch because we’ve been so entangled in the meditative mood.

Anchored by a superb turn from Bullock, who waxes convincingly vulnerable and resolute, Gravity only hits a handful of false notes along the way. At times the script overplays its hand, skirting perilously close to on-the-nose, self-help territory in its latter stages, while Steven Price’s score (for the most part an atmospheric, bassy throb) occasionally becomes unnecessarily saccharine and manipulative. But these are minor quibbles. Boldly conceived and thrillingly executed, Gravity sails easily into the top rank of thoughtful, melancholic science fiction alongside the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Silent Running (1972). It’s a trip you’ll be chewing over for a long time afterward.

Follow Ashley on Twitter: @_Ash_Clark  

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