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Film Review: Gravity

gravity-movie-posterGravity (2013)

Directed, co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Alfonso Cuarón

Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

90 minutes

Gravity is a full-blown, honest-to-goodness, proper ‘space movie’. Not a space opera a la Star Wars, nor a philosophical movie like 2001: A Space Odyssey (although there is an element there). It is the first film I have come out of in a long, long while, thinking ‘this could happen’ and being grateful for the cinema experience.

Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_cGc5bmyVs

Gravity is a movie for the Analog reader, the kind of space movie that SF magazine readers like me have often wanted, but until this film never got. Grounded in ‘Science’ (although I’m sure there are some details that the scientists will disagree with), it is a breath-taking vision of 21st century space travel combined with a simple, though riveting, plot.

The plot is straightforward. Set now, two astronauts in space are left marooned in Earth orbit when an accident destroys their shuttle and leaves them without communication to Earth. They find themselves having to find a way home to Earth using their skills and initiative.

From the outset, the glorious imagery of the movie sets a standard that is second-to-none. Many cinema-goers will be stunned by the lifelike images of Earth orbit. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is exquisite. There were audible gasps heard from the audience I was with when we first saw Earth from orbit. It is astonishingly realistic and surprisingly lifelike. Gravity is a film that needs to be seen on as big a screen as possible, in 3D: not something I say very often, if at all.

Seeing things on a big screen gives you an impression of the immensity of space. Things swirl, spin, flip and move around as if we are there in zero gravity. It is both rather disconcerting and truly life-like, giving the observer the feeling that they are there in amongst the events as they unfold. And even though I expected it, there were times when I too gasped. Never before have I seen a film that has made me think that this is what it would be like if I was in space.

As gorgeous-looking as the film is, it must be said that it would not work without the performances of the leads. For a film with basically two main characters and a couple of voices, holding an audience’s attention for 90 minutes is not easy. George Clooney’s role as Matt Kowalski is typically engaging, winning & characteristically Clooney-esque: wisecracking, good humoured, commanding when needed. It is his role as Doug Ross from ER, but expanded out into space. It is also a little similar to George’s role of Chris Kelvin in his remake of Solaris, though here he is in effective support mode. Some reviewers have unkindly said that this ‘Clooneyness’ is a weakness of the film.  My view is that the portrayal of the character is never phoned in, and that the ‘Clooneyness’  is a strength, as it is what is needed to quickly give us a character we can like and identify with in a movie that hasn’t the time to deal with flashbacks or backstory.

If Clooney is typically (and unsurprisingly) good, it is Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone (‘My father wanted a boy’) that astonishes. Throughout the whole movie, Sandra is never off camera and, even more amazingly, on her own on the screen for over an hour. Like Tom Hanks in Castaway, we are mesmerised by her as we hear her thoughts and see her emotions as she deals with adversity after adversity. This is, for me, an Oscar-winning performance of consummate skill.  At times reminiscent of Ripley in the Alien series, Dr. Stone is what we want our astronauts to be – dedicated, honest, never-giving-up.

As good as the actors are, they spent most of their time fighting against the reality that ‘space is dangerous’ and that maths and physics are against them. Like in Tom Godwin’s story The Cold Equations, the characters can’t magically beat the odds and the obstacles. There is no magic trick, no sleight of hand conclusion, no instant solution. Their fates are determined by hard science. There is a finality to events that happen, that in the end, of course, make the ending all the more sweeter.

For a film with such a simple plot, it is to the director’s credit that it is both a well-set and a surprisingly grownup movie. It is a film filled with silences, something movies just do not do these days, and something some of my other cinema spectators were clearly unused to. I was surprised at how low key the dialogue was in places, meaning that the audience had to listen carefully and follow events without having everything spelled out for them. Whereas some directors would swathe the film with sweeping, emotive orchestral scores, Gravity is surprisingly restrained in its sound, to the point where it is often the absence of sound that has the greatest effect.

Much of this must be due to the solid control given by the film’s director, co-writer, co-producer and co-editor, Alfonso Cuarón. It is clearly his vision that steers this film, a film that has dared to be something different (even when its plot is a tad predictable.) It can’t have been easy selling this one to an industry currently obsessed with sequels and blockbusters, but it does stand out as a result. I was very pleased to find that it is a film that is not afraid to treat its audience as grownups, pace things slowly yet relentlessly to a bravura conclusion.

In summary, Gravity is a must-see-on-a-big-screen movie, one for space buffs that will inspire and will make you appreciate just how amazing it is to have something happening out there in space that we pretty much take for granted if we’re not careful. It is a homage to the determination and the dedication of those who take our human need to explore and to discover ‘out there’, paying forward our space legacy.

Gravity  has become, for me, a 2001 for the 21st century. A movie with vision, struck through with awe, and, most of all, heart. I can’t wait to see it again. Highly recommended.

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