The spaces between – Gravity review

Gravity

By Simon Miraudo
October 2, 2013

The old adage goes, ‘They just don’t make ’em like they used to.’ Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity should inspire a rephrasing: ‘They’ve never made anything like this before.’ Truly. Its VFX are bigger than your VFX. Even James Cameron – notorious egomaniac – conceded defeat after a viewing, declaring it “the best space photography ever done,” before likely returning to his Avatar caves and whipping his workers to render Pandora doubly nice. (What’s “Mush!” in Na’vi?)

It tells of a first-time flyer, played by Sandra Bullock, who winds up lost in space. We’re right there with her, oftentimes watching the horror of increasing intergalactic isolation unfold from within her helmet. Cuarón’s constant screw-turning and the occasional first-person POV shots seek to remind us this is an amusement park ride above all. (You may want to bring your own gag bag.) But a rollicking space thriller can still set its emotional compass for true north. Gravity earns our awe with both its technical wizardry and also its intensely affecting character drama.

Gravity

The almost-real-time tale begins with a lengthy single-take sequence, in which the crew of the shuttle Explorer attempt some standard maintenance in the cavernous silence of space. The only thing breaking that deafening hush are the voices of astronauts Matt Kowalsky (a jocular George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Bullock), as well as that of Mission Control (Ed Harris) back in Houston. Their routine repairs are disturbed by incoming satellite debris, which eviscerates their ride home and sends Stone spinning into the abyss. Her contact with Mission Control is cut off. Oxygen levels are depleted. The anxiety cannot be subdued. Much hyperventilation ensues. And that was just from me.

The picture exhibits an impressive devotion to the logic of the cosmos, specifically with its total absence of external noise. (As the opening crawl informs us, “There is nothing to carry sound.” Also, “Life in space is impossible,” just to bum you out further.) The intricate sound design limits what we hear, essentially giving us as much aural information as Stone receives from within her suit. We usually get to see more than her, however. Much tension is wrought from the moments in which we witness massive destruction and explosions out of Stone’s line of sight, while she dutifully tinkers away none the wiser.

Gravity

As startling and exhilarating a roller-coaster Gravity is, it’s not merely an excuse to prompt panic attacks. It’s also a hearty test of Bullock’s star power and acting chops. There’s little – besides the eye-popping visuals – to distract from her performance, and the film lives or dies by it. Thankfully, it lives. In fact, it thrives. As the medical engineer on her maiden voyage, she conveys the gut-churning anguish that comes with attempting such awesome feats: every bump and jolt inducing a dry heave; every step and jump a herculean effort. Ryan Stone is more significant than a mere audience avatar. Here is a flesh and blood human being to care about; one so richly drawn she can’t even be stifled by the fantastical fakery of those computerised effects surrounding her.

When the details of Ryan’s heart-broken home life are unveiled, the rhyme and reason for Gravity is revealed too. Cuarón co-wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas; perhaps the first ever bonding exercise to result in an $80 million Hollywood production. They lay every possible hurdle before Ryan, practically guaranteeing death. Those quickly accumulating obstacles, however, are key in the development of the arc that elevates Gravity from sideshow attraction to an actual movie. The harder it gets, the more Ryan becomes desperate to survive; an unthinkable transition from her previous deadened state. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki – whose powers defy description – complement Ryan’s struggle with plenty of rebirth imagery. Early on, we see her floating in the fetal position before an ovum-looking pod door, with strategically placed pipes seemingly emerging from her belly as an umbilical cord would. The final – and too spoilery to mention – shots of the movie are even more blatant. Their message is clear: girl’s coming back to life, y’all. (It’s obviously relayed with greater finesse.)

Gravity

Gravity‘s technical achievements left me feeling like a bumpkin who’d just been gobsmacked by a carnival magician’s illusions, unable – or unwilling – to spot the strings used to bamboozle us. Recall audience reactions to the Lumière brothers’ famous short Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1896 (though not literally, unless you are an immortal). Fearing the locomotive was going to drive right off the screen and into their laps, viewers shrieked in terror. We laugh at their naïveté, yet how could they have known any better? What was unfolding before them exceeded their comprehension of what could reasonably be fabricated. Same goes here, to a degree. For those who claim to have seen it all, Gravity will handily bring them back down to Earth.

We’ve been trained by decades and decades of action cinema to learn the limitations of the form. We can tell what’s a practical effect, and what’s computer generated. We can tell what’s real and what’s fake. We can imagine where the camera was positioned; how the director pulled off the shot; where the actors were replaced by stunt people (or CGI replicas); which edges were sanded down in post-production; and what was scrubbed from the frame to make it look pristine. We suspend our disbelief as a means of accepting the unreality. It’s the only way to fly. Gravity requires no suspension of disbelief. I feel no shame in admitting I have no idea how they pulled this one off. I never noticed the strings.

5/5

Check out Simon Miraudo’s other reviews here.

Gravity arrives in Australian cinemas October 3, 2013.

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