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March 2014

Gravity

cast: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

director: Alfonso Cuaron

91 minutes (12) 2013
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner blu-ray region B
[released 3 March]

RATING: 8/10
review by Christopher Geary

Gravity

Gravity is a 'space movie'... The Space Movie! It certainly makes Sandra Bullock space woman of the year, and it showcases the most visually stunning use of virtual camera effects for years. It's probably the best work of this sort ever created. Gravity is a film that harks back to John Sturges' Marooned (1969), and it has key scenes reminiscent of Carrie-Anne Moss' rescue sequence in Red Planet (2000), but, most of all, it is the best movie about a troubled journey home down to planet Earth since Ron Howard's excellent docudrama Apollo 13 (1995).

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity starts boldly with a single-take in real-time of the fictional space shuttle Explorer drifting into view, while a specialist is working on the Hubble telescope. As the astronauts, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are convincing - but only ciphers if compared to the stronger characterisation of orbital space as a perilous working environment where sudden death lurks in each second of every minute; and this disaster movie runs for an hour and a half.

Gary Westfahl's book The Spacesuit Film: A History (McFarland, 2012) explored this subgenre, from its earliest silent movies to post-war classic Destination Moon (1950), and Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), but he closed that study of the book's neglected historical subject with the televised coverage with the first Moon landing, after which space cinema was never quite the same, at least in terms of sci-fi wish-fulfilment, again.

Of course, there were several other spacesuit movies produced later on - most notably The Right Stuff (1983) - and the casting Ed Harris as the 'voice of Mission Control' in Gravity provides a welcome link back to that classic movie about space age pioneers. But, increasingly, spacesuits as expensive props that were too cumbersome for actors to wear comfortably meant that fewer realistic space movies were produced, and it is quite understandable that Hollywood blockbusters could hardly match the genuinely awesome spectacle of real astronauts flying shuttles or working aboard space stations, so the spacsuit movie became the province of documentary features like For All Mankind. And yet there was TV movie Starflight One (1983), about a suborbital rescue mission, and Harry Winder's rocket-launch as industrial-accident, kids adventure SpaceCamp (1986), developed as a technological display, typically filmed with NASA's assistance, much like Clint Eastwood's later Space Cowboys.

What Gravity does, and does so brilliantly that it establishes a new benchmark for its subgenre, is reinvent the spacesuit movie for moviegoers who are not keen fans of SF, while at the same time appealing to any lifelong followers of space opera cinema who have sorely missed seeing realistic drama of this sort, and I think they could not wish for anything much better than Gravity.

William Eubank's low-budget art-house movie, Love (2011), about a lonely astronaut stranded aboard the International Space Station, tends to wallow in its depiction of a man's crumbling sanity, and favours abstraction above all else, even over subjectivity in a viewpoint character's performance. To its detriment, Eubank's indie venture feels like a student's short-film project extended to a feature length of 80 minutes, so it far outstays its welcome, and what it offers is mostly long tedious scenes between just a few impressive visual effects.

Gravity is also a character study, not of astronauts or scientists, but of space itself as the most indifferent antagonist in tomorrow's world. This is a scenario of a sort that's familiar to hard-SF fans of books and movies like The Cold Equations. While facing apparently certain death, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the mission specialist on a space shuttle flight to maintain the Hubble telescope, overcomes all obstacles to find her way home. Gravity is a magnificent piece of action cinema that places the viewer firmly in Earth orbit, where challenges to our perception mean a complete lack of any sense of up or down in conditions of weightless.

The movie's lengthy scenes of tethered or detached freefall EVA, where momentum and trajectory can be enemy or ally, and the numerous scenes of weightless drifting or relentless tumbling switch between the serenity and panic of spacewalks in 2001 and its sequel 2010 (1984). When she reaches the ISS, Bullock's shipwrecked spacer does a fetching Barbarella spacesuit strip-off in zero-gee, floating momentarily into a foetal position but, even though she's made it so far, it's not her lucky day and further troubles arrive promptly.

The drama is almost overloaded with many stunning CG-images and sublime camera direction, as the astronauts' lifelines of technological mastery are just hacked away, in heart-stopping moments, by the space age equivalent of an industrial accident. Action is fast-moving as hypersonic debris fields shatter everything in a catastrophic fashion. If you want an expansive, and yet paradoxically claustrophobic, sci-fi thriller where it all goes horribly wrong at once, and the lone heroine is totally isolated from any hope of rescue, here it is - packaged with auteurist skills and a peerless visual design that is a close match for the still-persuasive realism of Kubrick's 2001. Similar to that artistic masterpiece and the story of Apollo 13, the alternative future of Gravity (where the shuttle programme continued, and a Chinese space station is already built) is concerned with the human spirit caught in adversity on a desperate flight homewards. It's not as significant as Kubrick's 'ultimate trip', or as well acted as Howard's docudrama, but it might well be the greatest and purest 'ride' movie so far produced.

However, beyond the praise for this ecstatic drama of isolation, survival, and flukes of good luck which seem like divine intervention, there is almost no philosophical depth in this picture. It embraces the easy narrative of a Hollywood thrill-ride with a simple disaster movie affect and refuses to let go of your attention for a busy 90 minutes, but that's all it does. In 3D, I would assume its vertiginous aspects are yet more dizzyingly pronounced. I would imagine that Gravity is likely to overwhelm an IMAX audience; as the movie creates a compelling sense of space as both a workplace and a dangerous environment for the fragility of human life.

There are a couple of quite forgivable lapses of the drama into bathetic sentimentality but, for most of the engaging movie's running time, it is a gripping thriller. As a piece of hard-SF, this has a somewhat unpalatable adherence to religious intimations of the afterlife, but, that annoying bit of woolly thought, notwithstanding, I would really like to imagine that Arthur C. Clarke would have enjoyed this very much.

Give it four stars?
Roger that, Houston... no problem!



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