“Explorer, this is Houston... Mission abort. Repeat, mission abort,” Mission Control (Ed Harris)
Sandra Bullock. George Clooney. Director Alfonso Cuarón. Space. Fear. One of the most visceral cinematic experiences of my life.
It’s been a long wait for a project helmed by Cuarón. In 2006, he directed a work that made my Top 20 of the decade: CHILDREN OF MEN – a masterfully crafted look at the near future of Britain. Long takes, thrilling choreography, anchored to a gripping story. Those three elements have not left his skillset. The seven-year wait has been worth it. Not only is Cuarón sitting in the director’s chair, he is a producer, editor and screenwriter on GRAVITY. Alfonso directed the HARRY POTTER containing the greatest flair, THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN, and has re-teamed with its overseer, David Heyman. More of their collaborations would be welcome.
Immediately the audience is given some statistics on the harshness of space. Then we see the beauty. In the same way Daniel Day-Lewis tapped into the mind’s eye of how we imagine Abraham Lincoln to have been, the GRAVITY team have done the same with presenting space. The magnificence, that Kubrick demoed 45 years ago, is all there, as we see a space shuttle come into view. A team of four from N.A.S.A. are working on an upgrade of the Hubble telescope. Three astronauts are supplemented by Dr Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer. Her expertise in a new technology will allow humankind’s off-world spyglass to look into deep space. She’s a newbie. Only six months of training. Our entry point (if we were a resourceful, brave, near-genius).
Long takes of the Hubble upgrade cause a mixture of awe and queasiness. The magnitude and isolation of space is conveyed jaw-droppingly. Special effects like you’ve never seen. Immersive. Cinematography, acting, and the music/silence/sound-effects-in-helmet, combine to mesmerise. Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky, using a thruster-pack, moves with deft grace in large arcs around Stone at work. There is winsome banter between the crew and Mission Control (mellifluously voiced by Harris). A gentle news nugget is mentioned, Russia has detonated one of its spy satellites, but the debris field should not cause any alarms. Minutes later, warnings come in loud and clear. And from that moment, for the rest of the 90-minute run time, tension tightens around your stomach and never releases. (Maybe the studio should market the GRAVITY workout?) The initial explosion has caused a chain reaction among other satellites. The flotsam and jetsam are now hurtling towards them.
One can perhaps draw a line from JAWS (1975) to ALIENS (1986) to GRAVITY in terms of leanness and purity of thrills, coupled with a striking attention to detail.
“I hate space,” Dr Ryan Stone