Principal Cast : Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, voices of Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Paul Sharma, Amy Warren, Basher Savage.
Synopsis: When space junk destroys their orbiting shuttle, two astronauts must fight to survive the cold reaches of space alone, against seemingly impossible odds, until they can make it back home to Earth.
Don’t. Look. Down.
Every decade or two, a film comes along that changes the face of film. From the technical superiority (Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park revolutionized digital effects, while Avatar did the same for 3D back in 2009) to storytelling game-changers (Pulp Fiction in 1994, and even 1989’s Die Hard, which then became the default “action film” template ever since), defining films are rare and generally applauded by the general public. Gravity will, at some point in the near future, be considered just such a defining film, with its use of astonishing visual effects, and Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men, Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban) razor-sharp direction ensuring it has raised the bar for future blockbuster films to try and match, if not beat. For all the kudos and hysteria about how good Gravity looks, though, what of the film’s story and characters? It’s okay to dress a poor story up with spectacular visuals (Avatar), but what happens when both visuals and narrative work together harmoniously for the betterment of the movie?
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission aboard the Space Shuttle Explorer. She is accompanied by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is commanding his final expedition. During a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) in Houston warns the team about a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has caused a chain reaction forming a cloud of space debris. Mission Control orders that the mission be aborted. Shortly after, communications with Mission Control are lost, though the astronauts continue to transmit, hoping that the ground crew can still hear them. High-speed debris strikes the Explorer and detaches Stone from the shuttle, leaving her tumbling through space. Kowalski soon recovers Stone and they make their way back to the space shuttle. They discover that the shuttle has suffered catastrophic damage and the crew is dead. They use the thruster pack to make their way to the International Space Station (ISS), which is in orbit only about 100 km (60 mi) away. Kowalski estimates they have 90 minutes before the debris field completes an orbit and threatens them again.
Gravity’s plot is searingly simple. It plays into some of our greatest fears: isolation, helplessness, and desperation. The vast vacuum of space has never been quite as scary until you’ve seen it through the eyes of somebody trapped on the very edge of it, and the pervading sense of those three specific fears is palpable. While space might very well be the most important exploratory landscape in which humanity has ever trod, it is also equally the most dangerous. On the foothold of a gravity-free environment, the men and women who enter into orbit above the clouds are at the mercy of nature in the most profound way. Unlike some wild animal or Earthbound event, the upper atmosphere and the inner limits of space are filled with the danger of one specific scientific principle: gravity. With it, we stick to the surface of the Earth. Venturing out into orbit, and the hold gravity has over us is, although present, still weaker. Gravity’s core conceit is the very primal fear modern man faces: if something goes wrong up there in space, and our way home is destroyed, what do we do then?
Gravity is Sandra Bullock’s movie. While she may have won a questionable Oscar for her work in The Blind Side, here in Gravity, there’s no illusions that this is her Cast Away. This is her moment of pure, mature acting. While co-star George Clooney has a relatively small role to play in the film, Bullock takes a back-seat to his cheerful, almost zen-like approach to being in space, until the worst happens and she’s effectively on her own, breaching the vast gulf of space between her and survival. Then, Bullock delivers a career-defining performance (moreso than The Blind Side, in any case), as Ryan battles her own personal demons and the technical limits of her knowledge in order to save herself. The film’s tension is exceptionally realized, and although it’s set in as realistic a space platform as possible, Cuaron’s disregard for situational minutia makes the film – and the story – accessible to those who know nothing about the technical workings of spaceflight. Bullock commands the screen with a natural, frightened, dedicated performance as the abandoned Ryan, who is put into a situation so dire most of us would probably implode simply by thinking about it. Bullock’s appalling appellation of American’s Favorite Actress (I just made that up, though) is cast aside as Cuaron puts her through her paces, and while Ryan is an inherently sympathetic character regardless of whatever back-story the script gives her, there’s just enough development to produce some genuinely powerful, emotional moments. If Bullock ever deserved an Oscar for a pure, uncluttered performance, it is here.
Technically, Gravity is working at an entirely new level. Cuaron’s familiar use of single, long-take shots that swivel, swerve and pan across the story are dominant again here, particularly with a lengthy opening shot setting up the premise. From Explorer’s approach into frame, to Clooney’s effervescent space-walking theatrics, to the terrifying collision between space shrapnel and the shuttle, Gravity opens with a (silent) bang – the film-makers have opted for realism over fantasy, removing all external sounds of collisions, rockets and other ephemera normally a sound-designers domain in such films, giving Gravity a highly attuned 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe that elevates the tension dramatically. The visuals are like nothing we’ve seen before in film – sci-fi or otherwise – as the Explorer orbits hundreds of miles above the Earth, with panoramic vistas of continents, clouds and the gulf of space adding to the feeling of helplessness Ryan feels when things go bad. The seamless integration of live-action and CG is awesome to behold – we really are in space in this film, and it’s as scary as hell. There’s nothing to grab onto, nothing secure, as tether-lines provide cold comfort against the slingshot of irretrievable distance; a number of times in Gravity’s narrative, Ryan is flung about the screen as she desperately hops from one orbiting space station to another, clinging to the hope that she might make it back to Earth even when all hope appears lost, held on only by a single tether line anchoring her to life. Cuaron crafts his backdrop of beauty and horror with consummate ease, filling the screen with an alternately horrific and gorgeous backdrop of the Earth, Ryan’s safe haven, right there below us all.
Behind the scenes, Cuaron’s skill as a director is ably assisted by two key elements of the production; Steven Price’s radiant, ethereal, often-malignant score, and Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography. Price’s score radiates wonder and terror in equal amounts, with screeching strings and electronica jarring us aurally as Ryan’s still-world of space is thrown into chaos, and she comes up against problem after problem, while an almost angelic, heavenly melody haunts us as we realize just how amazing being in space actually is. It’s just soul destroying stuff, this score, and it’s achingly evocative. I loved it. Lubezcki’s photography on this film is just marvelous – it would be completely justified were a protest to be lodged were he not to finally snag an Oscar for his work, especially after five previous trips to the well. When the Explorer’s tragic end comes, and Ryan and Kowalski are sent spinning off into space, things become very disorienting for both the characters on the screen, and us as an audience. No matter how jarring or jiggly tings get, however, Gravity always looks like a masterpiece. Bullock’s gaunt face at the end of the film, when she makes it into yet another orbiting spacecraft and removes her helmet, is gaspingly beautiful in its haunting, life-and-death sharpness. The glimmering solar system, just out of reach, blinks like a million fireflies all flickering at once. The vision of the Nile delta shimmering with light during Egyptian night, is a truly gob-smacking sight to behold. Honestly, this film is revelatory with its beauty. I can’t speak highly enough about these two gentlemen’s work.
While the film excels in almost every regard in terms of technical and dramatic prowess (and it should, considering the $100m budget), there is one flaw to be had with Gravity’s bravura potency. While Bullock is no slouch as an actress here, and she delivers her part with consummate skill, her character – that of Dr Ryan – isn’t quite as well rounded as she possibly could have been. Due to the climactic nature of the film, with it’s “ticking clock” tautness, Bullock is given little chance to really sell Ryan as a person, over being simply an inexperienced astronaut. Sure, Ryan’s personal life hell is touched on, briefly, and it adds some weight (pardon the pun) to the loneliness of her situation (she has nobody waiting for her at home), but we’re given little time to get to know her aside from her banter with Clooney’s Kowalski during the opener. Her arc as a character seems rushed, albeit by necessity, and the impact this has on her as someone we come to know becomes lesser for the void of time. It’s a small, minor quibble, but one worth mentioning.
Gravity is essential cinema. It’s essential for both its technical and narrative prowess, the perfect marriage between story and visuals that captivates, terrorizes and drags you firmly into the upper atmosphere, where you’ll be gasping until your very last breath. If, by some small miracle, you aren’t clawing at your couch armrest to escape Gravity’s pressurized tension, you’re doing better than I could. I loved this film; its simple premise and its utterly flawless production quality, together with a winning performance by Bullock (and Clooney, at his charming, disarming best), make Gravity the film of 2013. Just brilliant.