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Film Review: Gravity (2013)

Gravity has been unanimously hailed by critics as the film of the year – but does this yarn of two astronauts stranded in space really live up to the hype?

Review by Jamie C. 

Gravity opens with a massive shot of the Earth’s curvature and a speck in the distance of a space shuttle approaching. As it glides effortlessly and languorously towards us – accompanied by the, at-first barely comprehensible but then clearly audible, tones of astronauts Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) – the ship emerges in subtle yet mesmerising 3D, cruising out of the vastness to a visual proximity so close you can almost reach out and touch it.

It’s the kind of sequence – beautifully rendered, visually stunning, technically impeccable – that will have every true movie-lover grinning from ear to ear. Spectacular and grandeur doesn’t even cover it – and we’re only the first few minutes in.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has dabbled in Mexican eroticism, a dystopian London and a certain boy wizard, but this is arguably his finest hour, navigating two adrift astronauts through the dark, awe-inspiring void of space. It’s a race against time – their oxygen’s getting low. They need to use the stars, the Earth, the orbiting space stations – anything – to navigate their way home.

Scared Bullock in Gravity

Screenshot from trailer

Co-written with his son Jonas, Cuaron expects and demands your full attention. It’s a full, intense, rollercoaster thrill ride that pushes all the buttons of a blockbuster yet layers with a moving, emotional resonance that explores the themes of redemption, loss, loneliness and humanity itself.

Deep themes for an ostensibly high concept movie – and you don’t get more high-concept than the basic lost-in-space/find way home premise here – but it’s woven in to the milieu with such gravitas and heartfelt realism, it’s impossible to not get sucked into its trajectory.

There’s no messing around here. After a few brief captions telling us about the impossibility of life in space, we’re plunged into the solar plexus of the piece – crackling transmissions from mission control, a garrulous Clooney peppering the cosmic silence with his cheeky banter (though he ‘has a bad feeling’ about this mission), until the inevitable happens.

Gravity trailer snapshot

Screenshot from trailer

Left spinning in space after a collision from the meteor shower of a recently obliterated Russian space satellite, our two ‘blind’ protagonists lose each other then find each other, talking in the vain hope that someone at NASA will be listening.

Cuaron orchestrates a series of mind-boggling set pieces, disorientating us, throwing us around like rag dolls, thrusting us into the uneasiness and queasiness of Clooney and Bullock’s perilous situation. It’s a reality of space experience that’s never been captured as authentically and jaw-droppingly before, carrying us through flights of weightlessness with balletic grace infused with a primal fear.  It’s a breathless, rollercoaster ride.

Even more remarkable is that nothing in Gravity is actually shot in zero gravity, but the majesty of each weightless movement as the characters weave around each other like some beautifully choreographed interstellar dance is astounding. This is flawless film-making.

It’s also incredibly exciting. Literally hurling the wrecked and jagged debris of the destroyed space station into our faces, whipping up a maelstrom of flotsam and jetsam and wildly whirling gantries, flipping and somersaulting the characters (and us) into the once beautiful but now terrifying starry darkness.

Bullock – freed from the limiting conventions of her usual ditzy, cheesy, air-headed, bimbo-ish rom-com schtick – shows here that she can genuinely act. It’s a powerful, brave performance, the literal gravity of her role anchored by her character’s back story of seeking some kind of emotional redemption and resolution after the death of her young daughter.

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Screenshot from trailer

Clooney is on hand to be, well, just like Clooney: charming, roguish, and affably self-effacing in the only way he knows. And it’s a well-worn character dynamic that works – she the fresh-out-of-training-school rookie, he the seasoned veteran on his final mission.

And so to the 3D – and 3D is this movie’s medium – with its CGI space stations, the space suits’ connecting, tentacle-like umbilical cords, floating screws, and weightless tear-drops creating an outer space environment that’s subtle but remarkable.

It’s an awesome depiction of the vastness of space, an apex of film-making that uses its state-of-the-art technology to embrace its existential themes whilst still retaining the nail-biting ingredient of the classic disaster movie. After all, the ultimate question here is: will they survive?

And their mission for survival is charted with adrenaline-pumping realism and a directorial fastidiousness that reveals a master film-maker in total control of his art. There are some fine directorial flourishes and astounding ‘how-did-they-do-that?’ moments, dizzying and head-spinning in its execution. But there’s beauty amidst the chaos, juxtaposing images of celestial annihilation with sublime and potent images analogous with religion, other life and rebirth.

Bullock and Clooney in Gravity

Screenshot from trailer

But the core impetus of the movie is about the resilience of the human spirit and its relentless, infallible determination to stay alive despite seemingly insurmountable odds.  And at 91 minutes it’s also mercifully short: this is an intense fairground ride that, if it was any longer, would leave us as breathless and gasping for oxygen as our astronauts in peril.

Here then is a movie that combines the thrills of summer movie popcorn fodder (ramped up with Cuaron’s perfectionist grace notes) with a deeper, more exquisite meditation on humanity and life – quite possibly the best film of the year.

VERDICT

A film that’s both epic and intimate, it utilizes state-of-the-art special effects to create a hitherto unseen visual verisimilitude but never loses sight of its core human impulses. You won’t see anything else like it all year, guaranteed.  

4.5/5

Featured Image: Chris Thornley

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