Last year, it was Life Of Pi . Last month, it was Captain Phillips . Next month, it’s All Is Lost .
Hollywood is currently serving up a slew of survival stories – though arguably none are more awe-inducing, eye-saucering or nerve-jangling than Alfonso Cuarón’s dizzying space spectacle Gravity . Like the title suggests, this is an astronaut adventure whose pull is hard to resist. By the time 90 stomach-shrinking minutes have elapsed, you’ll feel like you’ve been bumped around the heavens.
Rarely, if ever, has there been a 3D blockbuster that takes the science of space travel more seriously – and Cuarón underlines this with the opening caption, “Life in space is impossible.” No oxygen, no water and no way for sound to travel, existence in the thermosphere, some 375 miles above Earth, is no joy-ride.
We begin as a space shuttle hoves into view. Soon enough three crew members float about their business, making repairs to the Hubble Telescope. One is Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his final mission, which – judging by the cocksure way he goes about his job as he tries to set a space walk record – is probably just as well.
Alongside him is mission specialist Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) and nervy medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), out on her first NASA journey and not finding the soothing tones of Houston’s Mission Control (Ed Harris, in a neat nod to his role in Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 ) in any way calming.
Yet as she fumbles her tools, Cuarón handles his with unbelievable precision, as he and long-time regular cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki elegantly unfold the film’s entire prologue in a stunning, unbroken 13-minute take.
With the Earth beaming away as backdrop, such is the majesty of this scene, you begin to appreciate why it’s taken Cuarón seven years to follow up his 2006 future-set thriller Children Of Men . The physics of zero gravity are perfectly realised.
And the astonishingly immersive 3D (all achieved via a post-production conversion) pushes beyond even Avatar – explaining why James Cameron has dubbed this “the best space film ever”.
But hold on to your helmets: Gravity doesn’t even hit the 15-minute mark before alarm bells sound, as Mission Control suddenly reports that debris from a nearby Russian satellite is hurtling towards them. Kowalsky’s years of experience snap into focus, just as Stone’s lack of mission miles almost sees to their demise, as both narrowly avoid a perfect storm of shrapnel that slices through everything (including the shuttle) in its path.
With Stone sent spinning and tumbling, the camera queasily places us firmly in her space-suit – the first indication that Bullock, and not Clooney, will be the main focus of Gravity . Disoriented, and with her air supply dwindling, Stone’s panic-breathing gets louder and louder as she careers out of control; rarely has cinema felt this visceral, this life-and-death, as the remorseless, black universe opens up in front of us.
What follows is an unparalleled space survival story – less Cast Away than cast adrift. It’s made all the more urgent by the fact virtually everything (oxygen, fuel, even sanity) is running on empty. The less said about what happens the better, but when Cuarón shows us what a shrapnel storm can do, you’re left in no doubt that the clock is ticking for our heroes.
To begin with, Clooney seems to be phoning in his performance, as if his rakish lawyer from Intolerable Cruelty had blasted off into space. But don’t be fooled, for that insouciant charm works its magic in a later standout scene where advice and alcohol all play an unexpected part.
But mostly he’s second fiddle to Bullock, who delivers what could be the performance of her career here – a high-wire act that blends physical dexterity, emotional vulnerability and mental toughness.
Written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, as much as Gravity deals with survival, it’s also about such primal feelings as isolation, loneliness and fear. All three are embodied by Stone, a woman left bereft by a past personal trauma who, even in the face of death, isn’t sure what she has to live for.
If the exposition is clunky, it’s one of Gravity ’s few ham-fisted moments, ushering its protagonist on a classic Hollywood arc of redemption and renewal.
In the process, Stone emerges like a contemporary cousin to Ellen Ripley – an ordinary woman put in an extraordinary situation, calling upon ever fibre of steel and innovation she can muster. Cuarón, creating an almost hallucinogenic experience at times, almost pushes it too far in the climax, as what seems to be the final obstacle gives way to another.
But by this point, you won’t care; you’ll be too busy getting your breath back.
A stunning space saga that takes off for new technical frontiers without leaving its humanity behind. Ground control to Major Oscar…