It’s a sad truth of the film industry that when everyone thinks of what ‘a movie set in space’ looks like, their first mental images are of Star Wars. Unless you’re one of the two people who haven’t seen any of the Star Wars movies, you’d think that space travel is as simple as going on holiday. A trip from Coruscant to Tatooine is akin to one between England and America, and there are no space suits in sight because ships are either unrealistically endurable (I’m looking at you, Millennium Falcon) or explode into particles upon coming into contact with anything from a laser shot to another ship. Above all, space is NOISY in Star Wars. All this comes before mentioning that the series’ core signature elements – Jedi Knights and lightsabers – aren’t even set in space. So although I like the Star Wars narrative as much as the next person, it’s not something I’d trust in for its portrayal of space travel, space physics, or anything else to do with space.
Gravity is something else entirely. Here is a film that shows space for what it really is. Space is quiet and lonely. Space is scary. It is the harshest, deadliest environment you could find yourself in. To be stranded here is worse than to be stranded in the middle of the ocean or in an underground cavern – regardless of whatever rubbish Hollywood has fed us in the past with films like Lost in Space, which portrayed itself more as a technological road trip gone wrong than the hopeless and uncomfortably real survival story it should have been. Gravity is a classic space movie which certainly achieves the latter. Finally, we have something to rival Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney make up the solitary on-screen cast members. Bullock is an astronaut on her first space mission; Clooney a veteran planning to retire after this, his final mission. Together they bring the lonesome human element to an otherwise vast environment that seems intent on killing them.
Their ordeal begins during a routine spacewalk to service a space telescope. We, the audience, are given a brief glimpse of what it is like to be in an astronaut’s shoes at the best of times; the view of Earth is magnificent, especially if you watch the movie in 3-D, and it appears more peaceful from this perspective than it ever has done on ground level. Before long, though, a chain reaction of debris from a missile strike on a nearby satellite interrupts the routine mission and our characters find themselves quickly drifting into unexpected danger – but to say any more would be to ruin a movie that’s all about the experience and not so much about plot.
That experience, as I have hinted at, is partly dependent on whether or not you watch this film in 3-D. While I haven’t always been the greatest fan of this new cinematic trend, I have to say that not since Avatar (2009) have I been so impressed by its use – and I would argue that Gravity far surpasses even that. The added effects feel unnervingly natural and realistic; they greatly enrich your viewing pleasure. If ever 3-D has had, or will have, a definitive place in cinema, it is in a film like this one.
Special mention must be given to both the movie’s soundtrack (including an impressive score from rookie composer Steven Price) and its direction (by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron). Together they create moments that are eerily calm, lulling you into a false sense of security, before turning seconds later into high-octane rollercoaster rides where our astronauts are flung helplessly around at the mercy of a ship being torn apart by mindless debris. And when things go wrong out here, you know no-one’s rushing to rescue you.
Again, this really is all about experience. The weaker points of the movie arguably come when it focuses on giving its main character – Bullock’s Ryan Stone – a back-story which, for all its sense of tragedy in focusing on the death of her young daughter, is certainly not one of the more memorable points of the film. This is Hollywood after all; without such a thing we’d be considered unable to pay attention until the end. But to complain too much about this point is, perhaps, nitpicking.
Ultimately Gravity deserves nothing but praise for what it achieves. It’s not Marvel; there are no heroes in sight around here. This is just pure human survival, in an environment where our species clearly does not belong. Yet we crave its beauty and mystery nonetheless; short of travelling up there yourself, nothing matches Gravity in showing you that. Stanley Kubrick would be proud.
10 / 10.