“Beautiful, don’t you think?”
The words roll off Matt Kowalski’s (George Clooney) tongue with a profound sincerity as he slowly drifts about in space, captivated by the glow of the Earth’s surface below. Hanging helplessly in the dark with nothing more than a rope binding them, skittish medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and the light-hearted Matt Kowalski uncover the harshness of space after an accident blows them adrift and leaves them fighting for their lives. Gravity, the much anticipated sci-fi from Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), offers a memorable journey both into space and into the human soul; the cinematography is gripping, the drama is painful and the silence is exciting.
Life in space is impossible, the film tells us. The words offer a chilling sentiment and a more than suitable prelude to the experience of floating in Cuarón’s at once heavenly and hellish space. In Gravity space is a dangerous yet beautiful frontier full of wonder and curiosity punctuated by the frequent crackle of a radio and a humorous quip courtesy of Clooney. With the camera floating unobtrusively alongside Bullock and Clooney, suspended in the silent darkness, Gravity combines the intrigue and horror of space from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with the thrill and experience of Disney’s “Star Tours”, the simulator that dips and dodges through George Lucas’s space-scape. It is a physical experience that brings its audience into the suffocation, jolts and fear.
The overwhelming fear of vastness or the pain of isolation are just two of the many horrors Gravity invites us to recognise. In a short 91 minutes, Cuarón’s spectacle moves seamlessly from action to action without losing sight of the characters. And that frequently headache-inducing gimmick that is 3D actually makes for a satisfying experience. The bulky black-rimmed glasses justifiably bring the action outside the screen, pelting and bombarding the audience with space debris as it wildly tears and shreds through everything in its wake. It is a film that cries out to be experienced on the largest screen possible.
Trying to reach out from beneath the crippling weight of the burly white space suits, Bullock departs from her established persona. Known to many as a snorting undercover FBI agent at a beauty pageant in Miss Congeniality (2000) or a morally-driven and privileged blonde with a warm heart in The Blind Side (2009), in Gravity Bullock offers a more subdued and defeated character in her portrayal of an astronaut with a burdened soul. Her performance finds its weight when the suit comes off as her pale and haggard complexion contributes to her tired and worn physicality. Although beaten and bruised, Ryan still manages to find strength. Her counterpart, the cool brown-eyed old-timer Kowalski is Ryan’s guiding star. Clooney’s performance is comprised of little more than a friendly voice over the radio but his character’s unyielding optimism and humour brightens the screen.
At times, however, the spectacle runs the risk of distracting from the performances and threatens to undermine Bullock’s soulful portrayal. As Cuarón stargazes, he sacrifices some character depth and prioritises glossy visuals and a booming soundscape over performances. Bullock and Clooney are often lost amidst muffled bangs and the shelling of debris.
Still, watching the green neon glow of the Northern Lights dance across the Earth’s surface or experiencing the silence of the sunrise, Gravity resoundingly roars. The film is a confident piece of cinema and an unmissable experience. While Alfonso Cuarón has more than proved his impressive flair for filmmaking, it is Bullock who is the sparkling gem of this spectacle.