Gravity review – Alfonso Cuarón leaves you breathless with excitement

Less sci-fi and more a thriller set in space, this manages to create both awe at the glorious space vistas, and knuckle-gobbling tension

Alfonso Cuarón’s incredibly exciting, visually amazing film is about two astronauts floating in space. The title refers to the one big thing almost entirely absent from the film: it’s like The Seventh Seal being called Levity or Last Tango in Paris Chastity. With gorgeous, tilting planet Earth far below in its shimmering blue aura, a bulkily suited spaceman and spacewoman veer, swoop and swerve in woozy slo-mo as they go about their business tethered to the station, like foetuses still attached to their umbilical cords. The movie’s final sequence hints at some massive cosmic rebirth; a sense that these people are the first or last human beings in the universe, like something by Kubrick.

Sandra Bullock plays a scientific engineer, Dr Ryan Stone, who after six months’ specialist Nasa training has been allowed into space to attach a high-tech new scanning device to the Hubble telescope. She is under the watchful supervision of Matt Kowalski, a genial and grizzled space veteran played by George Clooney. The voice of Houston mission control is played by Ed Harris, in playful homage to Ron Howard’s 1995 space-disaster classic Apollo 13. Only this time it is him telling them about the problem. Soon, a terrifying situation unfolds.

Director and co-writer Cuarón brilliantly manages to create both awe at his glorious space vistas, and knuckle-gobbling tension at what’s happening in the foreground. It’s like a bank heist in Reims cathedral – in space. You could find yourself asthmatically gasping with rapture and excitement at the same time. After it was over, I was 10 minutes into my tube ride home before I remembered to exhale.

Since its release, various specialist observers have unsportingly emerged to say that the science involved in Gravity is fanciful and wrong. No matter. What makes Gravity so gripping, and so novel, is that it behaves as if what everyone is doing is happening in a world of commonplace fact: like a movie about two drivers on a runaway train or hot-air balloon. A movie set in space tends to trigger an assumption: that it is set in the future (although not the case with Star Wars). If it is not like Apollo 13, about the bygone era of space exploration carried out by guys in quaint crewcuts, then it is going to be set in some madeup futurist world about space exploration in aluminium-foil costumes and spacecraft doors opening and closing with zhhh-zhhh sounds – a world that may or may not involve extraterrestrial creatures, but which importantly and patently doesn’t exist; a movie whose effects depend, at least partly, on the assumption that what is being shown is not true.

Gravity isn’t like that. It’s not sci-fi, more a contemporary space thriller. It’s happening in the here and now. That is why it is so absorbing, although you may have to abolish your own scepticism-gravity – suspending disbelief at the idea that Stone’s training would have allowed her to be reasonably familiar with the control panels of Russian and Chinese spacecraft with their Cyrillic and Chinese letterings. Of course, these aspects may have been cunningly devised by Cuarón so that his movie can blast off in Russian and Chinese territories.

The movie draws, broadly, on the style, if not the substance, of that dystopian tradition stretching from Kubrick’s 2001 (1968): it is comparable to Alien (1979) or Dark Star (1974) or Silent Running (1972), in that it adopts something of their downbeat, quasi-realist behaviour, applied to something notionally real; it has some of their flashes of humour and horror and tension, but it is without cynicism or satire, without monsters or talking computers. Incidentally, the deeply scary question of what happens if you accidentally become detached from your spacecraft and float irreversibly off into space brought back memories of Brian de Palma’s little-liked Mission to Mars (2000). But importantly, it’s supposed to be real.

Clooney effectively concedes star status to Bullock and Stone’s face, as she finally reveals the personal anguish she’s brought up to space inside her, becomes gaunt and waxy and agonised: a very real 3D image of pure human pain. When she cries in zero-gravity, with real tears floating away from the face, it is a heartstopping spectacle. Kowalski’s gallantry and Stone’s yearning are compelling and unexpectedly romantic.

Is Gravity very deep or very shallow? Neither. It is a brilliant and inspired movie-cyclorama, requiring neither gravity nor gravitas. This is a glorious imaginary creation that engulfs you utterly, helped by superlative visual effects design from Tim Webber, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and production design by Andy Nicholson. As you sit in the cinema auditorium, you too will feel the entertainment G-forces puckering and rippling your face.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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