Gravity – London Film Festival review
Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Film critic James Rocarols delivers his verdict on Alfonso Cuarón’s space-based blockbuster Gravity, starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

According to legend Francis Ford Coppola originally envisioned Apocalypse Now as a cinematic monument that would only play in a single enormous cinema in the middle of the US, and that citizens would travel from across the country to visit it in the same way they do Disneyland.

Perhaps it’s not too cheeky to suggest that something similar could have been done with Gravity. As many critics have suggested, it’s a film that seems closer to an amusement park ride than the traditional cinematic template, especially when viewed in Imax 3D (as it should be).

So singularly is it focused on affecting a particularly visceral, physical experience on its viewers that it feels like a possible new direction for the Hollywood blockbuster; a model that could more successfully utilise all these new Imax screens and 3D systems to their full potential, but one that also deemphasises traditional storytelling techniques. It certainly seems like the most essential 3D film since Avatar reinvented the format four years ago.

The story is very simple and we all know it by now: astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are close to completing their space mission when a cloud of debris caused by an exploded satellite crashes into their shuttle, sending them spiraling out into space, orphaned in the outer blackness. Their only option is to find their way to the international space station with the kelp of Kowalski’s thruster pack, but they only have 90 minutes before the debris cloud completes its orbit and returns again…

Gravity’s chief tactic is to focus on both the inherent scariness of the idea of being untethered in space, but also the rollercoaster helplessness of being spun around and unable to control one’s movements, as occurs during all of the big set-pieces when the debris cloud strikes. The signature feeling we get from the film is that of being spun around as if inside a washing machine while shards of metal spin towards you, all accompanied by cacophonous sound effects and Stephen Price’s deafening score.

How on earth they storyboarded it I don’t know, but there are some incredibly choreographed sequences such as one where the camera slowly switches perspective by slowly panning from a panoramic view of explosive space-carnage to eventually end up right inside Ryan’s helmet. The knowledge that it was all designed digitally rather than affected in-camera only marginally lessens the impressiveness.

The difficulty with this sort of film is that it needs to get the expository niceties out of the way in the first five minutes so we can get on with the ride, but it also needs to engender empathy in its characters. Hence the casting of Clooney, who can engage audiences in his sleep. (In fact it’s interesting how excessively the film exploits Clooney’s everyday likeability in service to the plot’s mechanics, but it’s impossible to expand on this point without spoilers so I’ll leave it at that.)

The script still has to make Bullock’s character believable and sympathetic so we discover that she’s a lowly civilian doctor completing her first space mission following a family tragedy. We learn much of this in the opening scenes during a series of expository conversations that even Clooney struggles to make sound natural; exchanges that in reality would have occurred at the beginning of a mission rather than the end.

Nevetheless Clooney and Bullock are first-rate exponents of dream-factory persuasion and they do a sterling job of conveying the outright terror of their situation. It’s testament to the power of cinema that it can so successfully simulate the ultimate expression of solitude whilst one’s sitting in a packed auditorium.

Despite my comparisons to theme parks and adrenaline adventures the film is much more than a mechanical thrill-ride; it’s an emotionally powerful film that marries both the nerve-shredding tangibility of its disastrous drama with a human story that questions the essence of our innate desire for survival.

Gravity is released in the UK on November 8, 2013

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