Friday, 22 November 2013

Gravity Review

Gravity opens with a deafening roar - a wave of sound that rises to drown out the world - and then suddenly cuts to silence. As planet Earth hangs there on the screen, hauntingly beautiful, you realise that you’re holding your breath. And so is every other person in the room. You won’t start breathing again for an hour-and-a-half.

I almost feel I should stop there. That’s all you really need to know about this incredible film: it is breathtaking in more ways than one, and it doesn’t let up for a second.

Gravity is a weird one. I don’t want to say much for fear of spoilers, yet it might be impossible to spoil. What actually happens is just a short list of events that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts go through in linear order. No reveals, no twists, not even much in the way of developments, just a fairly simple journey. The story really isn’t the point, so recounting it won’t spoil anything at all.
What can be spoiled is how this journey, and each event along the way, plays out. What makes this film so special is just how incredibly immersive the experience is. We are not watching them take this journey - we are taking the journey ourselves. For the duration of the film we are actually there, in space, feeling all of the awe and fear that comes with that.

Alfonso Cuarón, director of the superb Children of Men and the best Harry Potter film (Azkaban, obviously), has crafted one of the most powerful, visceral movies I’ve ever seen. Using his trademark über-long takes (that first shot of Earth is something like fifteen-minutes long), incredible dynamic camera work, and some of the best 3D since Avatar, this world swallows you up into its reality. Then it shakes you like a ragdoll. Because it’s not enough for Cuarón to simply put his audience into space, in a more immersive way than anyone ever has before, he has to put us through hell when we get there.

The voice of Houston’s Mission Control is provided by Ed Harris. It’s a wonderful nod to Apollo 13, but it should also give you some idea where this is going. Following the destruction of a Russian satellite, a deadly cloud of space-debris is sent hurtling round the planet towards our shuttle, currently docked with the Hubble Telescope. Things go very wrong very fast, and things continue to spiral breathlessly out of control for the whole rest of the movie.
Things fall apart and explode and tumble weightlessly, just out of reach. The astronauts spin off into the void and, worse, fall towards the planet itself. People run out of oxygen, they run out of fuel, they get tangled in wreckage and constantly - constantly - slammed into things as they fall apart. We feel every moment of it on a primal, emotional level; and, all the time, we’re painfully aware of that satellite wreckage, speeding back around the Earth to take another shot.

Everything Cuarón does is designed to pull us in and make this feel as real as possible, and that it certainly does, but there's two things that deserve special mention. First is his absolute dedication to silence in space. There is, of course, no sound in space, but most films ignore this because it feels weird. Here we see collisions and explosions, but the only sounds are ones the astronauts themselves would hear - distant vibrations through the objects they touch, dampened by their spacesuits. As well as making the world more real, it also adds to the sense of isolation and strangeness of the environment.
The second is Sandra Bullock's performance. Clooney's good too, but as the assured veteran astronaut he's basically just playing George Clooney in space. Bullock, though, is incredible as a medical doctor thrown into this impossible situation. She starts off vulnerable and helpless (as you probably would) but she slowly begins to fight back, determined to make it through. What sold it for me is how she slowly opens up - starting off quiet and dejected, but eventually talking to herself and grinning with adrenalin-fuelled madness. It's exactly how I get if I lock myself out of the house, and I totally bought it. Some have said she's not a very fleshed out character, but she doesn't need to be - because Bullock so inhabits this woman, and because we share her trip through hell, we intimately know her even though we know nothing about her.

There are problems. There's one sequence which doesn't really work, feeling too forced and pulling us out of the world, and there's a moment of symbolism that's beautiful and evocative but goes on for far too long. The most problematic is that, while the whole film frequently bends science for its own purposes, there's one crucial story-moment that hinges on some seriously dodgy physics. But that's more or less it - those are the only hiccups in this otherwise believable and completely immersive universe.

In my review of Rush I called it tense - "cripplingly so" - but Rush is a carefree romp next to Gravity. This film is pure white-knuckle terror; except in those few quiet moments of dread, while you wait for the next thing to go wrong. Those parts are somehow even worse. It's a phenomenal film with truly gorgeous visuals and one amazing central performance. It's not much of a narrative but, bloody hell, it's an experience. Gravity is atmospheric and gripping and unyieldingly intense, and once it has its claws in you it doesn't let go.
The crazy thing is that, as much ridiculous hyperbole as I'm using, I'm still selling it short!

You need to see this film. You need to see it in 3D. And you need to see it right now.