Gravity opens with the most jaw-dropping special effects shot since Sam Neill saw his first Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park. Planet Earth stretches out before you, whole, three dimensional, real. In one long, unbroken shot we are introduced to our lead characters as they float through the void, above the audience, in an utterly convincing depiction of modern space flight. Instantly the film makes the best use of 3D seen in the modern age – this film needs to be seen in the cinema.
Our lead characters, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are doing routine repairs on the Hubble space telescope, when they get word that a cloud of debris from a damaged satellite is heading their way. As the previously routine mission spins out of control the visual virtuosity continues. Director Alfonso Cuaron throws every trick in the book at the audience – space debris flies towards the screen, the camera flows seamlessly through an astronaut’s visor and into a POV shot, and floating water bubbles land on the camera lens. Gravity is an aggressively stylish film that rivals the work of Fincher and Scorsese for flair and audacity.
Praise is also due to stars Bullock and Clooney, as the jittery rookie and smooth old-hander respectively. Clooney, playing to his strengths, slides back into the easy charm shtick that has served him so well since ER, and reminds you what a likeable screen presence he can be. Bullock, meanwhile, is a revelation, in the more challenging of the two roles, and gives a performance which a) finally puts the ghost of Miss Congeniality to bed and b) must now be considered the hot favourite for Best Actress come awards season. (Special mention must go to the scene where she finally breaks down under stress, which had hardened cynics all around – including myself – pretending they had something in their eye.)
Sadly the script, and the science, can’t quite live up to the quality shown elsewhere. There is an inherent tension in the core premise between scientific realism and disaster movie thrills, and the film expends so much energy trying to create a sense of scientific verisimilitude that it’s especially disappointing when it doesn’t live up to its own exacting standards. As the film moves into its third act, implausibility becomes an increasing problem, and it’s sad that a film which impresses so much with its credibility at the beginning, has you crying “Bullshit!” at the last moment.
There are also moments where sentimentality, cheesiness and cod profundity threaten to overwhelm the good that has gone before. One particular moment, where Clooney is forced to spell out a message that really should have been implicit, is awkward and jarring.
It will be interesting to see how posterity treats Gravity. My instinct is that, on the small screen, and in 2D, its flaws will become glaringly obvious. Don’t let that happen to you. Gravity doesn’t reach the heights scaled by 2001, and never really properly makes its mind up as to whether it wants to be a philosophical science drama or an action thriller. It is, however, a towering visual achievement, an overwhelming spectacle, a rip-roaring action movie, and the best fun I’ve had in a cinema in at least six years.