There seems little point writing a lengthy review of Gravity: it’s scooped every ‘Film of the year’ accolade going and you couldn’t avoid the advertising campaign. (Pleasant, though, to see the poster on bus shelters and billboards: that early-morning pre-commute stroll enhanced by a becalming shot of Earth from space, as opposed to, say, Mark Wahlberg pointing a gun at something.)
But still, it ran, to an extent, against expectations. I didn’t expect it to be so charmingly funny, as it so often is, and imagined it might be a little more po-faced. It’s all the better for not for a moment taking itself too seriously. I felt (incorrectly) that it was going to be a dazzling widescreen stack-up of breathtaking visual pyrotechnics and fraught, tightly-wrought near-misses. Well, it’s all that as well, but it manages to be a film that capitalises on the pawky appeal of the two leads without compromising any dread or tension. It’s often, whenever Clooney’s around, a bit like Frank Capra and Stanley Kubrick teamed up for a kickass themepark ride.
It’s nervy stuff with a soothing commentary, largely provided by the loquacious, diligently-affable Clooney. A few miles above Earth, three astronauts on a supposedly run-of-the-mill (for them: the lurching, awe-inducing vertigo isn’t easily acclimatised to) repair mission (although Clooney is about to break the all-time record for ‘space minutes’) hit a bit of a problem: debris from a satellite that’s hit a roaming asteroid is flying around their neighbourhood and may, unlikely as it may be according to Ed Harris’ ground-control update, cause them a bit of very dangerous bother. When this quickly becomes a distinct likelihood, they abort their manoeuvre. Alas, a somewhat misfiring Sandra Bullock, on her first such mission, doesn’t relinquish her task quickly enough, the third member of the crew succumbs in the bullet-quick wave of satellite shards and the team is down to Clooney and Bullock.
Although, unhappily, Bullock (genius casting: perfect throughout) has managed to become separated from her ship-tether and spins out into the starry void. Brilliant use is made here (and previously) of clever visual sleights-of-hand. There is an instant problem in making a film set in space: framing. Earth is the obvious point of reference, but where are the straight edges, the visual balance, for it not all to become a little samey at best? No horizon, no angular aids to offset one another. Director Alfonso Cuaron gets around this by punctuating black incomprehensibility with gleams of visor reflection, interior first-person shots flashing anchoring reminders of perspective, and one or two other tricks that feel as story-propulsive as they are clever.
Thereafter, pretty much whatever can go wrong does: Clooney gets to Bullock but in doing so compromises his own chances of survival; it’s during these sequences that the heart of the film is generated. We discover back stories, particularly Bullock’s, and the film coalesces into a multi-dimensional emotional drama augmenting our involvement with terror as opposed to relying on scares to keep us watching. Clooney and Bullock’s final scene together is completely wonderful: a heartfelt hark to halcyon Hollywood, yes, ‘Capraesque’, a few minutes of magic that take the film to still further, unexpected heights.
The casting seemed a bit of an eye opener initially but, with hindsight, shouldn’t’ve. Cuaron has opted for two instantly likeable actors, perhaps worried about the dramatic element superseding the emotional. If it had, we may be talking about an admirable, gloriously-mounted failure. As it is, the film is quite possible a masterpiece, managing as it does to fuse such polarities: the bleak chill of empty nothingness and Earthbound, human euphoria.
(Other must-sees from 2013: The Place Beyond the Pines, Upstream Color, Only God Forgives, Mud, Short Term 12, Blue Jasmine.)