Directed by
Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney
In UK cinemas November 7th, 2013

by Neil Bennett

Films that you absolutely must go see in the cinema in 3D seem to appear about once a year: the novelty of Avatar’s 70’s prog rock art landscapes and waggling arrows was followed less-than-swiftly by the exploration of what you could do subtlety in 3D with Hugo. Life of Pi combined heavily art directed versions of both the epic beauty and the savage anger of the natural world. And now we have Gravity – which like Life of Pi is from the perspective of one person striving to survive in the face of the seemingly unsurmountable power of physics, but this time scaled up to planet-size.

This one person is a doctor on her first space mission, played by Sandra Bullock – who I was desperately hoping not to find annoying like in, oh, everything else I’ve seen her in. Thankfully she’s required to act physically much more than emotionally and in this she does well. It’s only when a clearly crow-barred emotional story appears that the wheels start to come off.

Sandra’s up in space with George Clooney, whose playing his experienced-space-hand-on-a-last mission by just changing Doug Ross’s profession from ER doctor to astronaut, and a few Lieutenant Expendable types when the shit hits the fan – ok satellite debris hits the Hubble/Space Shuttle – and then the two of them have to try to get home without running out of air or getting taken out by any other orbiting debris. He’s cocky and cocksure – a foil to Sandra’s panic / stoicism – but partly he’s successful because we all like George playing this type of character, even making a very cheesy scene as part of the aforementioned ‘emotional journey’ bearable.

The action in space is armrest-grippingly intense. “Oh my, oh my, oh shit, oh SHIT” intense. The intensity isn’t from fast-cut pacing like many action movies,  but instead Gravity runs its scenes like what it is – a full-on disaster movie where you can see what’s coming and you can see our heroes desperately trying to get out of the way or avoid being flung into space, and their only hope of survival is through desperate scrabbling and blind luck. The tension builds and builds, and when it breaks, Gravity has a neat trick of injecting some laugh-out-loud gallows humour that gives you a sense of relief and brings you back down so the film can build it back up again.

These scenes are framed by long shots where the camera loops around the actors and spacecraft. The 3D suits this perfectly: you’re almost always aware of where everything is in 3D space and how close they are to colliding – or how far they are from where they need to be. And when you’re not, it’s because the film wants to disorient you in the same way as the characters are being spun in space.

The Earth behind them is rendered as beautifully as one of those IMAX ‘wonders of the universe’ films – and thankfully you get some time at the beginning of the movie to marvel over it before everything comes crashing down around Sandra and George.

The visual effects work is stunning, to the point that – with a few exceptions of some very CG-looking floating liquids – you cannot tell what’s real and what’s VFX. Everything feels as solid as pre-digital space classics such as 2001: A Space Odyssey – and possibly more so as even in 2001 you could occasionally tell they were models. You don’t really notice the effects – except for a few weightless objects bobbing around inside a space-ship as if they’re trying to get your attention – but unless something comes out in the next few months to trump it, Gravity has the next VFX Oscar sewn up.

The film’s only weakness is that someone decided that we’d need a tragic backstory to care for Sandra’s character, and to be challenged and grow as a character to be worth saving. We don’t and she doesn’t. Ripley never needed a backstory and she dealt with the dangers of space and a big fucking Alien.

The physical challenges that the two main characters go up against are what drive this film, and watching them in 3D enhances the experience to the point that I’d say you must physically see this film in the cinema.

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