Review: Gravity (2013)

Directed by – Alfonso Cuarón
Written by – Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón
Starring – Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

Fuck me… I need a lie down.

Let’s begin with the obvious; Gravity is a visual experience like no other that invites its audience to immerse themselves completely in what is occurring on the screen and – if you see it in 3D – what is happening all around them. It is spectacular, absorbing and exhilarating, and the direction from Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama También, Children of Men) is a masterclass in how to combine realism with relentless dramatic intensity. The film is a real tour de force in action, thrills and storytelling that grabs hold of you and refuses to let go until the very end. It’s a cinematic experience that will thrill, drain and ultimately satisfy you, not to mention one that will leave you completely blown away by just how much visual cinema has evolved.

The film tells the tale of Dr Ryan Stone (Speed, Crash), a first-time astronaut / mission specialist who is left alone in the depths of space when a Russian satellite is destroyed, causing a slurry of space debris to smash into the ship on which she is working. Initially separated from her captain, Matt Kowalski (Clooney; Ocean’s Eleven, Burn after Reading), Stone is rescued, only to be left alone again when further debris hits. With only one chance of survival, Stone must traverse the depths of space to reach a vehicle capable of getting her back to Earth before she freezes / burns to death, runs out of Oxygen or drifts too far into the vast emptiness of space.

Now, you all know about the visuals so I don’t want to go on about them for too long but I have to say one thing: the sequence outside the ISS is one of the most sensational pieces of cinema that I have ever seen. It’s not the ferocity with which the debris hits that struck me but the slow build-up; a piece of debris flies past. You think you’ve imagined it. Another one zips by in the background. You’re worried. Stone hasn’t noticed. Then two pieces, distant, almost like lights flickering. Then stone turns around and, in an instant, the debris is everywhere, smashing into the station. It’s an excellent example of how to build tension subtly; just because your film is full of huge explosions, that doesn’t mean you can’t crank the tension up slowly, almost unnoticeably, in the background. Cuarón understands that and, as such, that sequence – along with the many others of intense, relentless action – is just exceptional.

Gravity - 2013

For me the major surprise here was just how fantastic Bullock was as the film’s main protagonist. I love her as a person but her performances have never been all that great; whenever Bullock is in a film, you can almost guarantee she’ll just be playing a version of herself. Here, however, she gives one of the best – if not the best – performances of her career. Despite the swamp of emotions that her character is forced to wade through, Bullock never once overplays the role. She gives a realistic, distinctly human performance that encompasses the perfect level of emotional strain. When the disaster first strikes her character is a mess, yet as the film progresses she is forced to calm down, to think things through and to demonstrate strength in the face of colossal adversity. Bullock captures all of these character beats perfectly and turns Ryan from an irritant into a woman who we all really want to succeed.

On that note, though the characterisation is a bit thin it absolutely suits the thrust of the film. This is a 90 minute story, told in 90 minutes… quite the rarity these days! The characters aren’t the most complex people, nor are they the most interesting, but the small amount of information that we do learn about them, their personalities and their backgrounds is just about enough. The “woman in trouble” angle that the film takes is done a bit of a disservice by the revelation that Stone’s daughter died as a child, as it turns her into a stereotypical, broken woman, but we get enough of a feel for both of them that it’s easy to invest in their plight. Sure, it’s tough to believe that someone like Stone would ever be allowed into space in the first place but her inexperience, her indecisiveness and her inability to assess the situation rationally simply adds to the already heightened drama. Furthermore, the film is much more metaphorical than it is literal so the lack of characterisation isn’t all that off-putting.

What is problematic, however, is the script which, for me, was something of a mixed bag. The interplay between Bullock and Clooney is fun, and the Kowalski character brings some welcome humour to the proceedings, but when attempts are made to look at the events philosophically, it starts to get a bit silly. There is a religious / superstitious undertone to the film that is grating. It’s not so much of a problem when it’s explored visually (though even then there are issues, such as the “re-appearance” scene that doesn’t work at all…) but when it creeps into the dialogue it becomes quite annoying. For me the film works best when it’s grounded in realism, which is why I sometimes felt like the pseudo-philosophy was trying to drag me out of the drama.

Having said that, the “rebirth” imagery works incredibly well because it’s so manifestly human. This is, at its heart, a tale about a woman overcoming the odds in order to survive. It’s a film about human resilience and a film about moving on, and moving forward. Stone’s literal journey – from the Explorer to the ISS to the Chinese station and then, ultimately, to Earth – is a metaphor for her character’s evolution. The vastness of space represents her past and she works to leave it behind. There is a beautiful image in an airlock, where Stone enters the foetal position and is then “reborn” as a stronger and more determined woman. This idea of rebirth accompanies her through the entire film, right up until the final shot which – despite all of the marvellous space stuff – is actually my favourite shot of the film. Unlike the superstitious nonsense, the rebirth imagery is a signifier of human strength that I found incredibly affecting.

Gravity is an allegorical film, told in the style of an intense thriller that puts almost every other CGI-heavy film to shame. It’s not perfect but there’s so much going on that the great more than outweighs the not-so-great. It is a perfectly-paced, wonderfully-acted film that is amusing, entertaining and nerve-wracking. At 90 minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome, instead opting to tell its simple story in a rapid and mind-blowing way that will leave you emotionally drained.

I just wish Bullock’s character had been called Annie rather than Ryan…

★★★★

Review also posted on Letterboxd

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