We can only imagine what it must have been like for the lucky audiences who first saw the films of Georges Méliès. An illusionist who brought his talent for visual trickery to the screen in films such as Voyage To The Moon and The Impossible Voyage, Méliès thrilled audiences with his strange stories and imaginative special effects. To early 20th century eyes, those movies must have seemed like magic.
More than a century later, director Alfonso Cuarón achieves a similar thing with Gravity – a visual conjuring trick worthy of Méliès himself. His movie makes you forget that you’re watching actors pretending to be astronauts. You forget that the satellites and the backgrounds and the explosions are all special effects. You forget that you’re sitting in the dark with silly 3D specs balanced on your nose. It’s a conjuring trick so seamless that you’re swept up in its drama from the deafening opening notes to the final fade to black. As director Peter Hyams rightly said, “You surrender. You absolutely surrender.”
Gravity’s story is unusually elegant and uncluttered for an $80million science fiction movie. It’s about two astronauts, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and how their routine space mission is interrupted by a breathtakingly violent catastrophe. Kowalsky is the seasoned veteran on the cusp of retirement, Stone the newcomer still becoming used to the effects of zero gravity. When the debris from a disintegrating Russian satellite destroys their shuttle and leaves the pair stranded in space, the resolve and experience of both is tested to the limit, as they attempt to conserve their oxygen and find a way of getting back to Earth.
Cuarón’s use of long shots and exacting cinematography – as seen in his last film, 2006’s Children Of Men – finds its perfect match here, and it’s a perfect meeting of filmmaker and subject matter. He directs not just with technical flair and confidence, but with a playful curiosity and fascination for small details. His camera lingers on tiny droplets of water or the eerie glow of fire floating in zero gravity. The sight of a space shuttle shattering into countless pieces, only for those constituent parts to be torn into even tinier fragments, is as unexpectedly beautiful as it is stomach-wrenching – a kaleidoscope of shapes and colour.
There are entire, lengthy sequences that take place without an obvious edit, where the camera whirls around characters and space vehicles. It’s as close as cinema gets to an out of body experience. All due credit should go to Cuarón’s army of digital effects artists, who’ve used the film’s high but not exorbitant budget to create an utterly convincing depiction of life in Earth’s orbit.
Where so many films use special effects ingenuity to level a city or show a robot transform into a truck, Gravity serves as a reminder that films really can still surprise and astonish with their level of detail – truly, this is a film to be seen on the largest possible screen and, dare we say it, in 3D, too; Gravity is the rare example of a movie that delivers on the potential 3D provides.
Technically masterful though Gravity is, it’s not really a special effects movie, or even a disaster flick in the traditional sense. Really, it’s just about two characters who are wrestling with the possibility of imminent death, and at the same time marvelling at just how beautiful Earth and the solar system look in what might be their final moments. If this sounds mawkish, it isn’t; Sandra Bullock, in particular, is brilliant here, bringing real strength, intelligence and humour to her character – in fact, this may be the finest performance of her career so far.
Where so many science fiction films mislay their sense of humanity amid all the technology, Gravity manages to be both cerebral, scientifically plausible and invested with warmth. Clooney convinces as a space adventurer in the Gordon Cooper mould; a fearless daredevil who loves his fast cars and his tall tales.
With a necessarily economical script, Clooney and Bullock craft engaging, likeable characters who you constantly root for. Both the actors and Cuarón find all sorts of moments within the story to draw breath and explore new sides to their personalities, before the cloud of debris comes hurtling round Earth’s orbit to deliver another devastating blow. Make no mistake, you’ll come to fear and loathe tumbling pile of twisted metal as much as a villain in any comic book movie.
In the wake of its premiere at the Venice film festival, Gravity’s been met with adulations of every kind, from hints of Oscar nominations to praise from no lesser figures than James Cameron and former space man Buzz Aldrin. It has to be said that all that adulation really is justified. For once, you really should believe the hype.
Gravity is out on the 7th November in UK cinemas.
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