Just when you think you’ve got Gravity pegged – is it a disaster movie? A psycho-drama? – it floats off in an altogether different direction. In some ways, it’s a 90-minute action sequence – and a brilliant one at that – but calling it an action movie would do it a disservice. It’s part nature documentary, part space horror, part creation parable; it asks philosophical questions but doesn’t indulge you with too many answers. It shares elements with Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (although it isn’t as self-consciously intellectual as either) and Ridley Scott’s Alien. It’s at once rapturously beautiful and utterly terrifying.
Director Alfonso Cuarón – whose meandering CV includes indie hit Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men and one of the Harry Potter films – gives you a glimpse of the unfathomable massiveness of space and the infinitesimal insignificance of the tiny creatures bobbing around in our fraction of it.
One of Gravity’s highest achievements is getting across just how thoroughly bonkers it is to be in space. Actually floating around, in space; a horrifying, airless vacuum, hundreds of thousands of miles from water or oxygen. Lingering shots of chess pieces and a plastic Marvin the Martian drifting sadly through the void, unanchored from anything that gives them meaning, take on an almost unbearable poignancy.
It’s also gripping, right from the Inception-like pulsing chords over the credits, which fade into a vertiginous shot of George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski pootling around in a jet-pack, the earth curving dizzyingly below him. The illusion of depth appears so real my palms were sweating.
There are only two actors (a third bounces around in a space suit but you never see his face), but they’re so good you wouldn’t want to dilute them with anyone else. Clooney’s Kowalski is dashing and brave and compulsively watchable – a self-effacing, all-American hero. But he’s largely a foil to Sandra Bullock, who plays the role of her life as the inscrutable, damaged Ryan Stone (“what kind of name is that for a girl?”), who uses the emptiness of space to escape the bleak reality back home.
There are tender moments between the two but it’s no love story; they’re a lens through which to examine the very concept of humanity – a man and woman, alive in the lifeless void of space, tethered to the structure nourishing them through the umbilical chords of their space suits.
Gravity is epic – grand in its ambitions but focused in its execution; it’s quite probably the film of the year.
First published in City A.M.