“Life in space is impossible.”
So Alfonso Cuarón tells us explicitly at the very beginning of Gravity. It’s right there, in big fat white letters on the screen along with some statistics. Translation? Cuarón’s characters are doomed before we even meet them.
But what a way to meet them. In a 17-minute, unbroken opening shot the camera sweeps effortlessly across star-speckled nothingness, giving us a majestic view of our beautiful planet in all its gigantic blue and green glory before finally settling on a group of astronauts working on a satellite. It’s as beautiful as anything we’ve ever seen on the silver screen.
Among the group are George Clooney’s veteran commander and country music fan, Matt Kowalsky, completing his final expedition for NASA and determined to break the spacewalk record before returning to terra firma. He’s cool, calm and collected, in stark contrast to his companion, Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer on her first mission who hasn’t quite got the hang of this whole astronaut malarkey.
Quite what they’re there to achieve is beside the point. Research, or something. But it’s entirely irrelevant, because before long mission-ruining debris from a satellite is heading their way. Fast.
As chunks of metal rip across the screen and head toward us at an alarming rate, our heroes are thrust into a terrifying tailspin. Thanks to Cuarón’s clever direction and use of 3D, we’re sent flying along with them. Spinning across space we go, feeling the lack of gravity as a white-suited Stone disappears into the distant black and Kowalsky desperately tries to gain control of his jetpack. The camera is constantly moving, making us as disoriented as the characters on screen and moving us to feel their terror and panic. They think they’re going to die – and so do we.
And here is the genuine genius of Gravity. From the opening scene, all bets are off. Hollywood tropes are thrown out of the window, replaced with an intense thrill-ride of a plot that keeps us guessing from beginning to end. For now, though, Kowalsky is still resolutely calm. Stone is less so and running out of oxygen. But on discovering that their space shuttle has been destroyed, and with Houston as silent as the void that surrounds them, they must find a way to get home. Luckily, there’s a disused Russian space station just within reach. But don’t imagine for a second that it’s going to be that easy.
“I hate space,” mutters Stone after almost dying for perhaps the umpteenth time, and well she might. Cuarón, however, clearly doesn’t. Gravity is a love letter to the cosmos. There are gorgeous vistas of Earth throughout. We see the sun rise and we see it set, giving way to a mind-blowing glimpse at the Aurora Borealis from above. It’s spine-tingling stuff and ultimately the real star of this movie. The vast emptiness of what lies beyond the planet, meanwhile, is just as beautiful – but there’s something terrifying among the twinkling stars, and it’s the thing our heroes fear. An inevitable, cold, lonely death.
That fear is particularly palpable in Bullock’s performance. She’s the rookie on a mission gone wrong, so we can understand her fright, but thankfully just before the panic and screaming becomes too much to bear, Stone finds her resolve and the Oscar-winning actress begins to shine. Few could meet the demands of this role, but its in safe hands as Bullock gives us powerful emotion, only occasionally crossing the line to cloying.
Frequently ridiculous but breathtakingly beautiful, Gravity is a triumph. Just sit back and enjoy the view.