Tuesday 13 July 2021

From the archive: "Gravity"

It takes a while for the body, mind and eye to adapt to space. For at least half an hour of Gravity, you’re pinned to your seat in the dark, being spun around on your axis in such a way that it’s impossible to tell up from down, and a miracle your 3D goggles – essential kit, in this rare instance – remain attached to the bridge of your nose.

An open-access NASA simulator – available at the multiplex for just ten of your English pounds – Alfonso Cuarón’s film teaches us how to navigate its particular weight and weightlessness. Nerves are steadied and expectations raised from Gravity’s miraculous opening shot, setting the vastness of Earth as seen from the heavens against a tiny rocket doing the celestial rounds, then refocusing on a jetpacked astronaut – George Clooney, no less – propelling himself towards us. Already the film is as immersive as a flotation tank: for the next ninety minutes, we will be held in complete suspension, and absolute suspense.

As though to create space for the complexity of the visual design, the story – engineered by Cuarón with his brother Jonas – is simple, pared down, mythic. Clooney and colleague Sandra Bullock are making routine repairs to the exterior of their craft when they encounter a metallic shitstorm loosed by a collision between the International Space Station and a stray satellite; they’re sent spinning through the cosmos like billiard balls upon the roughest of breaks.

After the worst passes and it quietens down once again, we see this pair, stripped of their well-drilled levity and surety, for who they really are: a man and a woman, a million miles away from home, forced to confront the same issues of mortality and abandonment that might otherwise beset them – or you, or I – while sitting alone in a coffee shop as the leaves fall and late summer turns to autumn.

For all his evident mastery of visual concepts, Cuarón knows how to keep a tight grasp on his stories’ human elements: he did the 1997 modernisation of Great Expectations, you may remember, and one of the stronger Harry Potters. He’s a romantic, which perhaps explains the film’s somewhat traditional (if not entirely imprecise) gender roles: the man joshing and square-jawed, reaching for the vodka at times of crisis, the woman emotional and turbulent – plagued by multiple varieties of tummy trouble – and made subject to the most adoring zero-gravity striptease since Jane Fonda’s Barbarella.

Yet there’s something very poignant, possibly even symbolic, in the sight of Bullock and Clooney, two of the planet’s biggest stars, being reduced to the standing of helpless, indifferent specks, made subject to the same cosmic indifference as the rest of us, and doing all they can do not to break down in tears: Bullock, always a can-do kinda gal, here reaches beyond her usual screen gameness and into the realms of award-worthy endurance.

Individual temperament may determine this mission’s ultimate success: confronted by another late-2013 example of Hollywood ordeal cinema – playing out its peril in long takes, and in something that feels close to real time – not everyone will want to voyage this deep into space, just as I’m sure there are those who’ve so far avoided Captain Phillips because they didn’t fancy shipping into its decidedly choppy waters. (Both films narrow down their space, from floaty vastness to the cramped confines of palpably vulnerable escape pods; claustrophobes should approach with caution.)

The film’s front-and-centre emotionality – Cuarón’s attempt to find occasionally on-the-nose physical analogues for the ties that bind us, and sometimes hold us back – might be seen as both a weakness and strength: a humanist corrective to the gleaming voids of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or a shot at making Clooney’s Solaris remake play to bigger crowds by deploying fixes lifted from Pixar’s WALL-E, among others.

Yet the fact one feels compelled to make comparisons with Kubrick at all should suggest how notable Gravity is, and how significant it just may be: as a signal there may be life in the studio and star systems yet, as a technological development broadly comparable to the Apollo missions, and – perhaps most excitingly – as a giant leap forwards for the cinema of effects, both visual and visceral.

(MovieMail, November 2013)

Gravity screens on BBC1 tonight at 8.35pm, and will be available on the iPlayer thereafter.

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