"It's more like a dancer's choreography; it's about timings
more than marks. She was isolated in the light box –
the communication we had was through the radio and
microphone in her space suit. I'm amazed by what she did."
Director Alfonso Cuarón on actress Sandra Bullock
BFI Masterclass, BFI London Film Festival 2013
He's amazed? If this wasn't such a commercial spectacle utterly reliant on cutting edge VFX, I'd say that Bullock was a shoe-in nominee and in with a damn good chance of snagging the crème of acting awards across the board. For all the onscreen magic (and it is utterly believable) she holds our hand – or grips it in absolute panic – throughout most of the running time and never lets go. She is the focus, the fulcrum of the movie. It's a free-floating space spectacle that would be not exactly nothing if we didn't care about these people but damn close. Gravity astonishes and it makes you sweat. I can only add to the cacophony of praise while highlighting the smallest caveat to what would almost be a one hundred percent rave. But we'll leave the quibbling until later. First off, after the muddy and irritating 3D of Thor: The Dark World (they weren't kidding with that sub-title), I vowed that 3D and I were officially divorced. And then Gravity came along which, for obvious reasons, seemed to cry out for the full immersive Monty – 3D IMAX. I succumbed and am glad I did. Still no fan of 3D (higher admission prices for a less than perfect exhibition format), I have to say that if the technique was going to work gangbusters anywhere in the world, it was off world. Space and 3D go together so well that I just sat back and enjoyed (!) the ride – although it's hardly a relaxing journey. There were two scenes that evoked major palm leakage. So, if you are going to see this extraordinary film, do yourself a favour and make the 3D IMAX effort. You will not be disappointed on any technical level. See what I did there?
Gravity's linear narrative is the classic survival template; serious shit happens, try to survive, repeat until safe or dead. Seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (that is such a perfect astronautical name) is the shuttle pilot on a mission to overhaul the Hubble telescope. It's his last tour and strapped to a jetpack, he swirls around making sure everyone is doing his and her job. On her first jaunt into space is Dr. Ryan Stone (her parents wanted a boy) played by Sandra Bullock. Trying to keep an upset stomach from ruining her experience, it's clear that she doesn't think space walking is an ideal pastime. Clooney is the honey-voiced, cool guy in a crisis and Bullock the rookie. These relationship parameters are easily set just before the bad news... Space (as Douglas Adams once wrote), is big but an orbit is an orbit due to very precise mathematical and gravity based equations. A Russian satellite has been blown apart and the debris, travelling at buttock-clenching speeds, is ripping through everything on its ninety-minute orbital round trip. The debris shreds the space shuttle, killing the other space walker and the two astronauts thought to be safely (ha!) ensconced in the shuttle's interior. Bullock's workstation becomes detached and as she releases herself from it, she hurtles into outer space. I have seen very few shots in modern cinema with the power of this particular one. In 3D, you get a overwhelming sense of the sheer helplessness of a human being cascading away from Earth, utterly without control of her body, environment and indeed her life. It's a startling shot and in this movie, that's up against some amazing competition. Cameraperson Emmanuel Lubezki's work in tandem with visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber's is breathtaking.
Clooney, still in his jetpack, has some control over his movements. With his help, Bullock is rescued and attached to him all while her panicked breaths are hemorrhaging oxygen as they make their way to the International Space Station. Now let's catch up with a few technical details. No surprise to any Cuarón fan is his penchant for long unbroken (but digitally stitched together) takes. His Children Of Men is a marvel of invisible FX work that goes by with perhaps a fleeting thought of "Jesus, I hope that motorbike rider was well padded..." and no thought of digital jiggery-pokery. For the record, the motorcycle crash and rider were both wholly digital creations. Astounding. Cuarón's taken his unbroken takes to an almost Rope-inspired Hitchcockian degree. We do not cut to Bullock's astronaut's point of view, we move in and snuggle into her space suit with her, pushing through her mask to effectively become her at certain times. The effect is a startling one and hugely successful as a dramatic stakes putter-upper. But when he does cut (Cuarón's co-editor, Mark Sanger has the cushiest job in the film industry!) some of the effects of those cuts are monumental and as someone with some experience in this area (the cutting room alas, not space) I was flabbergasted and loved being made to work for my emotional involvement. As we cut to the wide of the space station, my eyes scanned for quite a few seconds before realizing that the two white pixels on the right were our astronauts. That cut takes balls. On anyone's TV, we are talking single pixels here – this is why IMAX 3D is really the only way to fully appreciate this film. It's the first movie that's come around in a long time where I gave up trying to imagine how they made it and just surrendered myself to the experience: exactly as it should be. The scene of the two adrift astronauts smashing into the space station and trying to find anything to hang on to - in terms of suspense and tension - is as good if not better than the mid-air rescue scene that so bowled me over in Iron Man 3. No matter what negative criticisms any reviewer may throw into the mix, this is without question masterful cinema. Hats are seriously doffed to Cuarón and the small armies of technicians that created these amazing images.
Bullock is never more that a gnat's hair away from totally and utterly convincing. Every desperate reach for a handhold, every urgent breath, every fraught manoeuvre, she makes us feel each and every one. Those sitting next to me in the cinema joined me in squirming as she fumbles for an airlock lever. Miss it and the movie's over. You know she won't miss it so how does this suspense business work so well? And then there's that heart-stopping moment when the airlock is opened and the rush of expelled air is so violent, the astronaut is slammed back only holding on by fingertips. I adore cinema like this that says to you from the very start that the movie is not going to piss you off (unlike The Last Days On Mars) but is still going to make you care over every airless inch of the way. About halfway through, something happens that inevitably asks a big question. That question hangs over the movie for a good half an hour until a scene that sort of answers the question (but also doesn't) creates a change in our heroine's state of mind. Emotionally it's a significant scene (no spoilers here) but it does strip the film of the extraneous needs of the audience at that point. We are left to settle on the matter at hand and again, emotionally this is what we need. None of the above makes a lot of sense without seeing the movie but you'll know that question when events in the movie bring it to the fore.
Once Bullock gets inside a space station, one of the first things we see is a lazily floating pen. Intended or not, this is one of the subtlest references to 2001: A Space Odyssey I've ever seen and I've seen quite a few. Now she strips off her space suit (a nod to Ripley perhaps?) and in one of the most affecting images in the whole film, she returns to the womb by curling up into a fetal shape and allowing herself the luxury of a thirty second nap. I don't know how else to say the following without it sounding like the judgement of a male where none is needed or wanted but the then 48 year old Bullock looks not a day over thirty. She looks perfect as an astronaut (the whole point I imagine) and as actors act with their bodies, I felt it fair to comment on the one we are most exposed to. She now has to contend with further perils thrown into her path and in zero-G, she floats to and fro in unbroken takes and for the first time in my cinema-going life, I have to admit defeat. The effect is flawless. I have absolutely no idea how the filmmakers achieved these scenes and cannot wait for the Cinefex magazine to show me. In an interview with Jon Stewart, Bullock concedes ironically "Yes. We shot it in space."
So what's the downside? A human being is in great peril and at one point she has the choice to give up and fall asleep and die. Certain facts established in the film earlier come up and she uses the memory of her now dead daughter (Ryan's daughter, oh please) to spur her on. You know what? After all the great work, the film is not undone by this clumsy emotional crowbarring, but you wonder why off Earth the writers (Cuarón and his son Jonás) felt it necessary to add an element of the film that sprinkles a clichéd mawkish sentiment onto a dish that needed no spices for its flavour to knock your socks off. Leave the goddamn lily alone. Yes, Clooney and Bullock need to have an ordinary conversation at some point and he has to keep her flagging spirits buoyant but the bombshell of "Oh, my daughter hit her head and died," followed by a respectful silence on the intercom is simply not needed. Yes, it's there for a reason – so the great unwashed can feel sorry for her, love her all the more, urge her on, don't give up... etc. It is simply not required and my only thought is that it was done for intended commercial appeal rather than dramatic necessity. I just do not need any more reason to care for almost anyone in the situation Bullock finds herself in. It could have been Piers Morgan in the spacesuit and I'd still be wringing my hands. Why the filmmakers didn't go the whole hog and establish the daughter alive (in a wheelchair perhaps?) smiling from a photo clutched in a desperate gloved hand – and then just at the moment of the most peril, the picture floats off and... well, you know what I mean.
Gravity is tremendous entertainment, flawlessly executed by some serious technical talent. Since all the crowing about Avatar's 3D revolution, it's the only 3D film I've seen (Hugo was nice, I concede) which seems tailor made for the extra dimension. The acting is just as convincing as the environment – Bullock is extraordinary - and with the small caveat of an unneeded reason to care, it comes highly recommended.