Film review of ‘Gravity’: If only it had defied the laws of conventional film

At 372 miles above the Earth, there is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure, no oxygen. Life in space is impossible.” This is how we are introduced to the most visceral and intense cinema experience of the year so far – one in which we are unceremoniously catapulted in to head first. We find ourselves on an EVA (a spacewalk) with a new bio- technician (Bullock) and a seasoned astronaut (Clooney), who front a small team one week into conducting maintenance work on the Hubble telescope. Moments in, a Russian satellite breaks up in low orbit, inadvertently causing a gathering of fragments until a massive cloud of debris is travelling at thousands of mph towards Hubble, threatening to slice the space walkers to ribbons and scatter their limbs into the cosmos.

Technically, Gravity is a virtuoso thrill ride that sets the bar so high, in terms of flawless realism, that it’s hard to imagine conspiracy theorists ever trusting space broadcasts again. The camera does some astounding things, by way of putting us right into the experience and never allowing respite. It is an exhausting, nauseating ride of the best possible kind. The opening sequence, as far as I recall, doesn’t have a single cut. In that time, the camera is spinning, circling, swooping – fluidly exploring tiny nooks and in the next beat, breath-taking expanses. The effect of having no cuts – which might serve to remind us that we’re watching a film – is that you become utterly transported. It’s hard to think of a film that better utilises 3D technology both thematically and physically (with the possible exception of James Cameron’s Avatar or Martin Scorsese’s Hugo). I was so absorbed that I caught myself blinking instinctively to prevent debris flying into my eyes. Following the film’s rapturous reception at Venice, the film carries certain expectations and the kind of hype machine that comes with universal praise. Claims of this being ‘the future of cinema’ are predictably misleading. On the other hand, if Gravity were the future of mainstream American cinema, as opposed to let’s say, anything by Michael Bay, that would be a very welcome turn of events.

Writing as a life-long enthusiast of science fiction, particularly the existential kind that Gravity clearly aspires to (2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris for example), I was distracted by several decisions that only narrowly avoid mawkish sentimentality or heavy-handed symbolism. The film is practically demanding to be seen as an allegory for the continuous narrative of human life, from conception through death and eventual rebirth. There’s an early moment where, spacesuit still tethered umbilically, Bullock floats in zero gravity in a strikingly womb-like environ. With this idea successfully communicated, she then assumes an actual foetal position, with the camera lingering on her for several more seconds – just to gently sledgehammer the point home. Then there’s another sequence that touches upon Buddhist notions of death and rebirth. And to enforce that interpretation, the camera lingers over a miniature Buddha in close-up. In fact, there are several niggling moments such as these. I welcome finding spirituality and existential allegory in sci-fi, but I prefer to feel as though I’ve arrived at them of my own volition, without the feeling that they have aggressively campaigned for my attention.

Nevertheless, Gravity is genuinely emotive cinema and it is packed with exhilarating set-pieces that deserve to be experienced in a theatre. The film falls just shy of greatness because it doesn’t dare risk losing some of its audience, and instead expends all of its fuel by trying to carry every single one of us home.

 

Gravity (11)

Dir: Alfonso Cuarón; US sci-fi/drama, 2013, 93 mins; George Clooney, Sandra Bullock
Premiered November 8
Playing Nationwide

 




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