Released 2013. Director: Alfonso Cuaron
UNLESS YOU'RE A TRAINED ASTRONAUT (OR RICHARD BRANSON), you may never have the opportunity to go into space. Watching Gravity in 3D is probably the closest you will get to a vicarious space walk. Indeed, Gravity is the singular movie experience of the year. Nothing else comes close. Sure, it’s not real. But what a sensational ride.
From the very first moments, Gravity draws you in with complex visuals. A serene view of the Earth distracts you from a small dot at a distance that slowly spins into closer view to reveal an astronaut. The earth shimmers in blue against the blackness of outer space as astronauts float around repairing the Hubble telescope. This amazing, uninterrupted 13-minute tracking shot is so cleverly orchestrated and edited it takes you around the spacecraft and gets you close to the astronauts in fluid motion. The camera seems to float effortlessly, swaying, spinning, turning, as if you’re dancing a waltz – with your mouth open in awe. What you see is so real one could be forgiven for thinking the scene is shot on location in Earth’s orbit. The point of view even drifts from a third-person passing into an astronaut’s helmet and morphs into a first-person view.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is a remarkable achievement. His lighting and camera movements are meticulous and produce stunning results in collaboration with the visual effects team. I’m not exaggerating when I say Gravity looks as if it’s been shot on location in Earth’s orbit. I know I said that before but it bears repeating.
Gravity lets you appreciate the stillness and majesty of space, then shatters the serenity abruptly with the sudden arrival of fatal threats. Out of the silent void disaster literally hits when waves of debris sweep in, as a result of the Russians having shot at one of their own satellites. The chain reaction is swift and deadly.
From this point on, in just over a taut 90 minutes or so Gravity becomes a technically sophisticated blockbuster disaster movie. The difference is it doesn’t feel like a typical Hollywood disaster movie because it seems so realistic, so believably realistic it’s nothing like a Hollywood blockbuster. Prominent in its absence is an ensemble cast of A-list actors who, in another version of a space catastrophe, would be knocked off one by one. Here, George Clooney bows out early, leaving the vacuum to be filled by Sandra Bullock alone.
Essentially Gravity is a one-woman show and Bullock carries the role superbly by herself. Most of the time Sandra is acting against the elements. Whether she’s tethered or otherwise, her character Dr Ryan Stone is driven by one and only one motivation: to get back to Earth alive. We follow one woman’s struggle almost in real time, being next to her in every move. Sandra Bullock draws us into her heroic efforts we feel every jolt as she’s pulled and tugged, or even experience vicariously her floating sensations when she loses her moorings and drifts weightlessly away. This is a physical role requiring the actress to spin and float and hang on for dear life while being blasted by currents of space debris. Yet Sandra’s achievement is acting with her face and voice, which conveys her emotional interiors even as we marvel at the spectacular exterior environment she’s fighting against.
The script, written by director Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas, tells a simple story. The narrative is straightforward to the point of being a rarity these days. Its directness has the power to involve the audience, engaging and absorbing you into the astronaut’s plight for survival in an environment so extreme and unforgiving, the fragility of human life is accentuated – and valued all the more so. Thematically, nothing is more universal than the instinct to stay alive. It’s a powerful core idea we can all relate to regardless of language or culture.
Gravity’s singular focus at unfolding a thrilling survival experience eschews metaphysical or philosophical overtones. Until the very final scene when this simple story invites us to take a different view literally, as Ryan Stone gets her feet on solid ground and we look up at her from a low angle. At this instant, Gravity becomes the story of evolution, the genesis of the human species, surviving against all odds, crawling out of the water onto dry land, adapting to stand and walk. What’s more, this is a woman with the name of a man, like Adam and Eve in one person. Whether Gravity is about rebirth, resurrection or an astounding stroke of luck, it celebrates the gift of life, and the gratitude of being alive.