Have to say this for Sandra Bullock, she nails it when it comes to physics. Speed helped make her a star. Now Gravity … well, this one makes her a meteor.
As astronaut Ryan Stone, she essentially becomes a piece of space debris after her shuttle mission goes horribly wrong. She spends much of the movie in a blind panic, spinning across the thermosphere. It’s doom with a view, 500-plus km up.
But even encased in a spacesuit and helmet, Bullock’s is a dazzling performance of physical skill and emotional force.
As the woman trying to fall to Earth, she makes us believe in a film that could have got away with just being a technical visual utter vertigo-inducing wonder.
It certainly is that, right from its extended uncut opening shot, which throws us into higher orbit alongside Stone and a Nasa crew under the command of George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, on mission to repair the Hubble space telescope.
It’s fitting this movie should start out tending to a device that has allowed us to peer out into the universe and see a bigger picture. This film does that, too, with director Alfonso Cuaron working from a script by himself and his son Jonas, which ponders death, grief, birth, rebirth and life on Earth itself, all care of visual symbolism that might otherwise seem heavy-handed if it wasn’t so elegantly woven into the film’s grand visual design.
It does have some slightly off notes. It’s hard not to think “Buzz Lightyear” when Clooney fires up his rocket-backpack. His easy charm in terrifying circumstances can feel a bit too good ‘ol boy to be true. Likewise, the back-story of Stone, greenhorn astronaut – which involves a past tragedy caused by, well, gravity – and her CV might make you wonder why she’s wielding a spanner in space.
But if she has seemingly too much baggage for this particular flight, it doesn’t do Gravity any damage. It gives this high-altitude survival thriller an existential edge. If, as the opening titles say, “life in space is impossible”, why fight it?
Seeing Bullock find an answer to that one gives Gravity its heart, one beating rapidly throughout.The look of the film is breathtaking, too. Yes, it delivers an as-good-as-it-gets 3D rendering of what it must feel like to be way up there, circumnavigating the world every 90 minutes. Or what happens when satellite wreckage acts like a cue ball sinking everything in its path, and propelling Stone and Kowalski into the void.
ut it also does smaller wondrous things like take us from the eerie silence outside Stone’s space helmet to the anxiety within. Or shows how crying in zero-g produces tears that just float away.
Yes, the visual combo of 3D immersiveness and weightlessness is quite something.
The supporting sound design is just as engrossing as it reminds of the Alien adage: In space no one can hear you scream.
But just as he did with his great apocalyptic Children of Men, Cuaron doesn’t let the science get in the way of the fiction.
Gravity becomes a character study driven by a riveting central performance and a radical thrill ride delivered with near real-time urgency which thrusts you through its implausibilities.
It’s had inevitable comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. But don’t let that put you off. Rather, it’s the spirit of David Bowie’s Space Oddity – “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do” – that this great film captures. And Bullock’s own Major Tom deserves saluting.