I distinctly remember the day I filed my feverish review of Gravity – Alfonso Cuarón’s brain-bending 3D space epic – because my boss marched over to my desk and cartoonishly proclaimed “FIVE STARS?!… is this some kind of joke?” It was, on the surface at least, a sci-fi, and his incredulity felt somewhat justified: I’d never written a five-star movie review before (and come to think of it, I don’t think I have since). But driven by pride, I defiantly stood my ground, while doubts began to bubble uncomfortably under the surface. “You’ll probably be right, as well,” said the boss as he grumpily conceded and drifted back to his desk, the signed-off page proof in hand. Yes, looking back now, five years today since Gravity opened the Venice Film Festival, I think it’s fair to say I was. Here’s what I wrote.
“You gotta admit one thing,” drawls George Clooney’s hardened astronaut, floating some 600km above the surface of the Earth. “You can’t beat the view”.
The same could be said of Alfonso Cuarón’s engaging, exceptional and inimitable masterpiece Gravity. Taking place entirely in the depths of outer space, the cosmic vistas of Earth and the final frontier are rendered in painstaking beauty, while the weightlessness of space – floating objects, a world lacking in up/down orientation – offers perhaps the best use of 3D we’ve seen yet.
But this picture is far more than eye candy. It’s a gripping, emotive and original thriller rendered in a rich and immersive environment. Essentially a disaster movie in space, a routine satellite upgrade mission goes awry when a cloud of debris strikes the craft and crew. Thus begins an incredible half-hour of real time, white-knuckle action, as soul survivors Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and Ryan Stone (an incredible Sandra Bullock) spin off into the great unknown, their hopes of survival as limited as their oxygen tanks. It’s frantic, gripping and immediate, the claustrophobia of space acutely rendered with a balance of silence, shock, heart and technique.
Mexican writer-director Cuarón is best known to cinemagoers for helming 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and to movie geeks for his coming-of-age, Spanish language road movie Y Tu Mamá También (2001). But Cuarón’s only prior work to hint at his talents for this kind of conceptually engrossing affair is dystopian novel adaptation Children of Men (2006). Like that movie, Gravity should be commended for making the implausible feel not just realistic, but viscerally, heart-pounding real.
Don’t let the space put you off; while we’re forced to reluctantly label this a sci-fi, it’s one of those rare, once-in-a-decade moments where a genre flick transcends its label, and simply demands viewing, like Alien or The Shining. A brief detour into Bullock’s backstory might frustrate some viewers, chiming an emotionally manipulative bell, but ultimately this film needs to be commended for not conforming to the Hollywood ending many movie buffs may be expecting (we’ll say no more). An absolute triumph utterly deserving in the ten Oscar nominations it’s attracted.