Monday, 13 January 2014

Gravity (2013)

Image: Warner Bros.

In space, no-one can hear you scream. It was only in watching Gravity that I considered the true genius of this tagline. Superbly effective for the little space-set horror film it was promoting, it carries the deeper significance of the true loneliness that can only really be experienced out there in the void. The horror is not that which makes us scream, but rather in the fact that nobody will ever hear us.

Gravity sees bereaved mother and first-time astronaut Dr Ryan Stone and old pro Lieutenant Matt Kowalski up in space fiddling about with a MacGuffin. When an exploding Russian satellite knocks out their communications and gets rid of their ship and team-mates, the two are left to navigate their way through the vacuum, towards the tiny hope of getting back down to Earth.

In terms of pure spectacle alone, Gravity is a winner. While the 3D didn’t strike me as entirely necessary, it is true that immersion helps this one. There are moments of awesome beauty, and Alfonso CuarĂ³n’s idiosyncratic eye captures some wonderful compositions. Where the film falters is in its tonal shifts. The first half is painfully tense, which means that the second act can really only be a disappointment – the first half a terrifying glimpse at life beyond the stratosphere, the second a traditional sci-fi race against time rollercoaster. It is still a brilliantly crafted piece of cinema, but the terrifying realism of the start bleeding into a rip-roaring actioner means that we lose the believability.

For a film which really rests on only two performances, this one is lucky enough to have two that convince almost entirely. Sandra Bullock as Dr Stone reminded me why she got so famous in the first place, bringing back the Wild Cat that we loved in the 90s, while Clooney brings all his usual handsome charm and assuredness to Lieutenant Kowalski, convincingly channelling the unflappability that one sees in most astronaut interviews.

The ideal length for this sort of thing is around half an hour, at the end of which Rod Serling should pop in to remind us that anybody foolish enough to become an astronaut is buying themselves a one-way ticket to The Twilight Zone. Even at a relatively brief 90 minutes, Gravity feels a bit flabby. As with all these people-stuck-in-an-isolated-place films (Open Water, Frozen), devices are needed to keep the plot from ending too quickly. While the acting never falters, the plot mechanics begin to grind (oh no, that pesky shower of debris is back AGAIN!). However, the ending, while ludicrously schmaltzy, does have that punch-the-air joy that makes for a satisfying cinematic experience.

Reminding me of Event Horizon, Black Water and Apollo 13 at all the right moments, Gravity might just be the definitive space picture for a generation (though it remains to be seen if any gems will be kicked up in the flurry of films that will inevitably surround NASA’s projected moon mission in five years’ time).



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