Alfonso Cuarón is back, following 2006’s Children of Men, with another thriller with science fiction elements and a whole series of incredible long takes. Gravity is about two astronauts who get stranded in space and who must fight to survive and get back home. It begins with an almost unbearably loud screeching, an early indication that the film may be primarily one of suspense rather than substance. That said, from the opening shot on, it is a brilliantly made and thoroughly tense film.
A lot has already been written about the film’s technical innovations and about the fact that it is best seen in 3D – I saw it in 3D but soon forgot about it so remain unconvinced – though this misses the point. Gravity is not really about the technology that it took to make it, it is simply about the tension, most of which is brilliantly constructed with the virtuosity expected from Cuarón and his fluid camerawork. His camera floats through space, making for a sublimely immersive and believable experience, spinning and moving upside down to recreate the experience of zero gravity. This is best showcased in the 13-minute long take that begins the film, introducing the characters and their jobs before showing a cataclysmic collision and one astronaut floating helplessly out into space all without cuts. Although it seems as if the entire film has been made with CGI, it remains an impressive example of the “unchained camera”.
Given the CG, the cast achieve an extraordinary amount, especially Sandra Bullock, considering the less than inspiring stimulus that they must have been looking at in real life. The characters are rather lazily drawn by Alfonso and brother Jonás Cuarón’s screenplay, which relies rather too heavily on simplistic characterization. It cares just enough to make Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) likable, but develops them little beyond that. Stone is given a backstory that is intended only to reveal her depressive side and allow her to give up much too quickly so that by the end of the film things can get a bit shrill and tacky (though rather moving) when she finally decides to do her damnedest to survive. This is all intended to be Inspiring and it is easy to see through, but most people will go with it, especially since the rest of the film has been so convincing and suspenseful. In other words, Gravity is a pretty comprehensively clichéd work but so well made that it gets away with it.
The visuals are fantastic as well, with a loving focus on what our planet looks like from space – we see sunrises and Aurora Borealis and we can recognise countries by their outlines. Speeding space debris blasts large satellites and space stations into splintered hunks of metal while astronauts try to grab onto anything that will hold them in place – all done with a lovingly attention to detail that it almost distracts from the often nerve-shredding suspense and rather overblown music. The sound is often kept muted, with huge collisions and explosions scored by low, rumbling bass to mimic the fact that sound is not carried in space – another in a series of little details that pays dividends. However, as a result, Steven Price’s blaring score, loud and shrill, seems all the more counterintuitive, a constant distraction from the much more realistically drawn action. Not that Cuarón doesn’t insert a few off-putting elements of his own – such as one of Ryan’s tears or a Looney Tunes character floating towards the camera – which don’t help much either.