Gravity review: nowhere to go but down (London Film Festival)

Gravity green light George Clooney Sandra Bullock

Stunningly accomplished space survival adventure: heartstopping and heartbreaking; the best film of 2013 so far. Just don’t call it science fiction.
I’m “biast” (pro): the trailers were horrifying and amazing; love Cuarón and Clooney

I’m “biast” (con): have not been the biggest fan of Bullock

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

It’s making me a little bit crazy that people are calling Gravity “science fiction.” It’s not. There’s nothing speculative or fantastical about it. If anything, it’s historical… because, you know, the space shuttles ain’t flying anymore, and are now firmly lodged in the “mothballed technology” category. Not that there isn’t historical science fiction, of course. But Gravity ain’t that, either. The few things that aren’t quite factually accurate here — like how Sandra Bullock wouldn’t actually look so sleek and pretty when she shimmies out of her space suit; she’d be drenched in sweat and still have to get out of the undersuit, complete with its totally unsexy diaper — are nothing more than the usual shorthand we allow movies to indulge in.

Space is a real place. Real humans are living and working — right now, right over your head — in low Earth orbit. (The International Space Station just had its first traffic jam! The Olympic torch is about to have its first spacewalk!) It’s because we’re used to seeing footage of astronauts singing David Bowie songs on the ISS that we know what it looks like to be floating around in zero-gee… and that now not-completely-unfamiliar reality is part of why Gravity is so very different from all the actual science fiction movies we’ve seen before. Why it had to be.

Gravity looks like it was shot in orbit. I mean, really. There’s none of that fakey zero-gee where you can tell that the actors are suspended from wires. It’s all green-screen madness and CGI almost everything… but this is a digital cartoon that may be the most plausible re-creation of a real, heh, space ever. I’ve been thinking for a while now how the day is coming when a narrative movie will be shot in space (some science documentaries have, of course, already included footage from shuttles or the ISS), and this is the sort of movie I guess I was sorta imagining it might be.

This looks utterly real. And it’s a story that could only be told off the planet.

I don’t know how Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) did it. But it starts off jaw-dropping and then just gets more astonishing. The first 15 or 20 minutes of this film is an apparently uncut sequence that introduces us to engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock: The Heat, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and all-around flyboy Matt Kowalski (George Clooney: The Descendants, The Ides of March). She’s a newbie mission specialist trying to install a new camera on the Hubble telescope, which has been connected to shuttle Explorer for the work; she’s attached to the end of the shuttle’s robotic arm. He’s a veteran astronaut testing out a new jetpack, and he’s zooming around like a kid road-testing a sportscar. The (virtual) camera zooms in from afar, the Earth dominating in the black sky, the tiny shuttle lost in the vastness until we get very close… and then we’re kinda like Kowalski, zipping around and taking in the magnificent scene from all possible angles: up close on Stone’s work, which is hitting some frustrating snags, and enjoying the scenery with Kowalski, and listening in on the banter between the shuttle — Kowalski is a nonstop chatterbox wiseass, as only Clooney can pull off — and mission control in Houston. (Nice hat-tip to the only other realistic space movie as yet, Apollo 13, with Ed Harris as the voice of mission control. Again.)

This is indistinguishable from actually being there, including the lack of “up” or “down” to orient yourself and the lack sound in the vacuum of space. Not that it’s totally quiet, not with Kowalski on the radio and, well, like this: When Stone is trying to slot a computer panel into the Hubble, she — and we — hear the creaks and bangs of the telescope’s protests because she’s touching it, and because there’s air in her suit to carry the vibrations to her ears. But when debris from a broken-up satellite elsewhere in orbit rams into the shuttle, sending it spinning uncontrollably in the most horrifying way, we hear nothing. It’s almost more horrifying than it would be with the noise of an explosion, because we see it, and our eyes don’t want to accept that such an unimaginable disaster could happen, and not hearing it makes the terrible confusion even more disorienting.

Oh, and it’s all in the most necessary, most immersive deployment of 3D technology ever.

And then Gravity goes beyond merely looking real, and starts to feel real. The satellite debris breaks the arm from the shuttle, sending Stone spinning off, and Cuarón’s impossible camera isn’t just with Stone but suddenly inside her helmet, giving us her personal experience of the horror, Earth rocketing past her view over and over again, the heads-up display on her visor warning her of low oxygen. Kowalski is still out there somewhere — he survived the collision and has his jetpack and is talking to her over the radio, so he can come at get her. But then what? The shuttle is toast (and the rest of the crew is dead). They have a few options: the ISS and the Chinese station, Tiangong 1 (also real; also not science fiction), if they can get to them. If they haven’t been devastated by the cascading debris field, which is destroying everything in its path, which just creates more orbiting debris…

There’s so much that’s marvelous in Gravity that I’m still unpacking it, even after two viewings. But here’s one thing that astonished me: I figured I would not find myself, on that second viewing, unconsciously holding my breath again. But I did. Even when I knew what was going to happen. The suspense should have been busted for me, but it wasn’t. Never mind that Stone can glance over her shoulder and see the whole world off to one side, this is an intimate film; we are with Stone, and she is alone, for much of the movie. Alone in the most dangerous place humans can be at this point in history. Alone in the most remote place a person can be. (Bullock is fantastic; this is by far her best performance ever, and now it makes me angry that she hasn’t had more opportunities to show us what she is capable of.) Her fight for survival is heartstopping and exhausting, for us as well as for her; the film zips through its 90-minute runtime, and takes place almost in real time, and yet it also, weirdly, feels like it goes on forever, in a good way. It’s a completely captivating experience — you are captured, and cannot get away — that your whole world narrows down to. And it’s also a heartbreaking experience — oh, dear, the wracking sobs that I had to suppress during both viewings, lest I become an annoyance to other filmgoers — because of course things do not go smoothly for Stone, and at one point she must make the conscious decision that she actually does want to survive and doesn’t want to give up.

Perhaps the most beautiful thing about Gravity — and this is a concept that science fiction first gave to us — is the sense of the Earth below Stone and Kowalksi as not a collection of different, discrete places but as one place. As Home. The escape in Gravity is not from orbit to Houston or Lake Zurich, Illinois (Stone tells Kowalski that’s where she lives), or any particular place at all — just Down. Anywhere. Even in the vistas of the planet, Cuarón doesn’t give us any instantly recognizable places: there’s no boot of Italy or Great Lakes for us to fixate on. There’s just green and blue and clouds. It’s all home. It’s a concept that we all need to be thinking about more, because many of our seemingly intractable problems at the moment — like climate change — would be a whole lot less intractable if we were looking at the planet as one unified place instead of a divided one.

The technical accomplishments of Gravity alone would make it the film of the year. But its unique tapestry of human adventure and emotion in a scenario that reminds us on a biological, physical level what it really means to be human — that is, a creature of this one planet and nowhere else — makes it unmissable. All those people who see only one or two movies a year on a big screen? Gravity needs to be one of them.

viewed during the 57th BFI London Film Festival

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