Just above the Earth, 3 astronauts are performing routine upgrades to a satellite. Veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is enjoying the final moments of his final mission, Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) is horsing around with his umbilical-like chord and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is attaching a prototype to the satellite, annoyed by the other twos behaviour. They then receive a sudden instruction to abort and get inside, but a shower of debris forces them into a desperate fight for survival. Life in space is impossible.
How do you start deconstructing a film like Gravity? Well, you start by mentioning the visuals. They are, quite simply the most impressive, realistic and beautifully shot effects ever committed to film. Everything from the blueish Earth vistas to the white and gold space stations, everything is carefully rendered and wonderfully realised. Director Alfonso Cuaron once again proves himself to be one of the most exciting and talented directors working today and he has achieved that rarest of things, a film that actually benefits from the 3D. The standard has been raised and it’s up to other film-makers to catch-up.
Survival thrillers are often hampered by predictability as well as large portions of boredom used to highlight the boredom of simply waiting. The benefit that Gravity has is the sumptuous visuals that catch your eye, with even the minutest object, whether a pen or a model of Marvin the Martian taking on a life of their own when subjected to zero-g. It must be an inherent condition in humanity that we are fascinated by the science of the unknown and for most people, existence without gravity is other-worldly.
The casting is excellent, with Clooney displaying a full-on charm offensive as the cocksure veteran astronaut with a story for all occasions, often to the chagrin of Ed Harris’ mission control, itself playfully riffing on Apollo 13. But it is through Bullock’s character, that we are taken on the films main journey. As she displays a person living a tired existence, thrust into an internal emotional crisis, which forces her to choose whether she really wants to survive or not. With these two on this kind of form, awards nods cannot be far behind.
Like all great films, Gravity leaves itself open to interpretation, with moments of magical realism interlocked with the cold, harsh reality of survival in space. This gives rise to moments where you question the reality of what you’re seeing, then when combined with a mid-plot twist and a third act double twist you find yourself questioning everything even though the visual ‘reality’ is unimpeachable. Like Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey there are allusions to the rebirth of civilization and even religious allegories “Well this can only end one of two ways” not to mention Christ and Buddha icons.
But for those that prefer their films more simplistically, there is more than enough tension in Gravity to fill a normal thriller and then some. From the opening continuous shot, masterfully crafted by Cuaron to the final scenes, there is barely a moment for breath and relaxation. This nerve-shredding is expected in a survival thriller, but the fact that the film is set in space adds to the stakes. Like Jaws made a generation afraid of the water, Gravity will likely have the same effect on those dreaming of being astronauts.
At a lean, mean 90 minute running time Gravity is cut to perfection with not an ounce of fat to be trimmed, which is all the more impressive considering how far the lightweight plot of progressed. It could meanly be described as one survival action scene glued to another, but what you are left with is an almost perfectly constructed thriller. It is as much a celebration of humanity as it is a tale of survival and with industry-changing levels of visuals and supreme performances it is, quite simply, the film of the year.