December Issue 2013

By | Arts & Culture | Movies | Published 7 years ago

The opening scene of Gravity is a staggering 17-minute long single shot in which the slowly gliding camera takes us floating along through space, showing us a breathtaking view of Earth and drifting us along towards a tiny speck just to its side, which turns out to be the space shuttle carrying our two protagonists. This sequence, with its stunning visuals and the graceful camera work which weaves between and around the astronauts as they work on the exterior of the space shuttle, is awe-inspiring and sets the stage for one of the most extraordinary cinematic experiences ever.

In a year which has seen one action movie after another,Gravity directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) is one of the few that has gotten it right. It manages to ground heart-racing action in a personal, human story, and for a movie with such large stakes — two astronauts lost in space, fighting to survive and struggling to get back to Earth — it feels surprisingly intimate. It tells the story of Ryan (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission and Matt (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut commanding his last flight before retiring. As the two spacewalk over the shuttle, with Ryan installing software to the Hubble Space Telescope and Matt being the charming goofball that Clooney so excels at, they are suddenly hit by high-speed space debris, destroying their shuttle, killing the rest of their crew and sending them both tumbling through space. With the limited oxygen in their space suits, and the threat of more debris coming their way hanging over them, both have to find a way to return home.

If the basic premise makes Gravity sound like your usual run-of-the-mill survival film, everything else about it sets it apart from the rest — not least of which is the striking cinematography, which makes you marvel at the sheer vastness of space and the beauty of the Earth spinning in the distance (like Clooney’s character quips, “You can’t beat the view”). The long, expansive shots of the eerie depth of space are juxtaposed with close-ups of the characters, and the sluggish, floating movement of the camera makes you feel like the third astronaut, experiencing along with the characters their horror and despair. There are also ingenious POV shots where the camera moves closer and closer to Bullock’s helmet-covered face until we are inside the helmet and seeing through its smeared and foggy glass. The film excels at conveying a feeling of claustrophobia quite paradoxical to the immensity of the space that surrounds the characters.

However, the visuals by themselves would not have had the same impact if they weren’t grounded in performances that made you genuinely root for the characters, because Gravity is as much about braving fraught external conditions as it is about the impact this has on the internal psyche. Clooney is suave and flirtatious, and remains unruffled and calm at the most tense moments — exactly the kind of dreamy guy you would like to be stuck in space with. But it is Bullock’s intense and nuanced performance that anchors the film in real human emotion. Her breath alone, heard over a soundtrack which is otherwise eerily silent, manages to convey her state of mind at various instances — breathing which is rapid and panicky in some cases, ragged with lack of oxygen in others, and when she finally takes a deep breath inside an oxygen-filled space shuttle her relief is palpable. Her character is a grieving mother, still hurting from the loss of her young daughter in a senseless tragedy, but her loss is not something to despair over; it is what drives her on and leads her towards an aesthetically and emotionally satisfying finale.

Gravity, like last year’s Life of Pi, uses 3-D technology very effectively, pushing the boundaries on visual and cinematic possibilities, and making you wonder at how a film which is essentially all CGI looks so real. With a running time of exactly 90 minutes, its narrative is tight and packed with events happening in quick succession. And contrary to what you’d expect in a film about two people floating in space, there is a lot of action. The film wastes no time with unnecessary sub-plots or irrelevant characters. The story is stripped down to the basic: man and his primal need for survival. The themes of rebirth after adversity and the resilience of human life are reinforced throughout the film: there’s one poignant scene where Bullock’s character, stripped of her space suit, curls up quietly into the foetal position, like a baby waiting to be born. Its masterful storytelling, stellar performances and cinematographic feats, make Gravity one of the best films of the year.

This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2013 issue under the headline, “A Masterpiece is Born.”

Nudrat Kamal teaches comparative literature at university level, and writes on literature, film and culture.