Hollywood studios have long been obsessed with showing filmgoers the vast and brutal expanses of the space beyond our planet’s atmosphere. From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Alien and more recently Moon, viewers have had no shortage of movies that drop them amongst the stars and set about entertaining us.
Just never like this.
While all of the aforementioned films are undoubtedly full of memorable and exhilarating moments, nothing like director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has ever been presented on screen before.
Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is the laid back, charming veteran to Ryan Stone’s (Sandra Bullock) space-faring newbie, both on a mission to repair damage to the invaluable Hubble telescope. While performing maintenance tasks on the telescope, a warning comes in from Houston that actions by the Russians to destroy one of their own satellites has created a dangerous and fast moving debris field which threatens the astronauts, as well as their ship and crew. With the warning coming too late, the debris sets upon them causing catastrophic damage and stranding the pair in the vast emptiness of space.
Filmed in one continuous single shot, the opening scene is not only an example of Cuarón’s (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) masterful directing, but the technical wizardry involved in such an immersive, hypnotic, and utterly terrifying sequence, which is peerless, and quite unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed in cinema to date, and I’m no film novice, let me tell you.
Following this horrific and jaw-dropping opening, the two space-walkers are left to devise a way out of, quite simply, the most impossible scenario imaginable. For the remaining 75 minutes, viewers are taken for one of the most edge-of-their seat rides ever committed to film.
Riveting, exhilarating, horrifying…. there just aren’t enough descriptive terms to fully express what Gravity gives to the audience, and the necessary superlatives nearly fail me. Coming late in the film year, Gravity surpasses any other film released this year to earn its spot as the best of 2013.
With an exceptionally talented director and Hollywood royalty as its fantastic stars, there really was no going wrong here. Clooney is under-stated and calming, while Bullock is edgy and anxious. Clooney gets top billing here, but make no mistake: this is Bullock’s movie, and she ably rises to the occasion.
She is basically the eyes and ears of the viewer, and we are often right there with her in the space suit, imagining her fear and desperation in the desolation of the endless vacuum of space. Her emotions run the gamut, and she is absolutely perfect here.
One particular scene of her shedding her suit as if she is being given birth to, then arching her body before drawing up into the foetal position and floating weightlessly is one of the year’s most affecting on-screen images. I’ve found myself returning to the imagery again and again in my own mind. Bullock expertly conveys the hopelessness and sheer terror that must surely be felt in a situation as dire as the one she finds herself in.
While the cast and filmmaker will deservedly receive the bulk of the praise here, it would be remiss to overlook the astonishing work turned out by the FX team, responsible for making real something that until now could only be imagined. Not a moment of what is on screen rings false. You feel as though you are with the two stranded astronauts in space, one moment dwarfed by its vastness, the next gasping for air in a claustrophobic nightmare. Also, the score used during the movie is one of the most evocative and beautiful I can remember hearing in the past five years.
I cannot possibly recommend this film any more strongly, and it is certainly one of the very few that demands to be seen in 3D. It makes such expert use of the often over-used and abused technology that it puts almost all others to shame. What Cuarón has given us here is a gift, and it defies all labels. Is it a science fiction film? A drama? A thriller? Or simply the best horror film of the last decade? Viewers can judge for themselves. Personally, I see it as all things to all people.