Gravity review: Sandra Bullock space epic makes other blockbusters look leaden

4.00

This Alfonso Cuaron-directed film has incredible special effects (3D, 12A)

Gravity is a rarity, a big-budget studio movie that feels utterly personal. This isn't franchise film-making. It doesn't have super heroes. It isn't a sequel. Instead, it is a survival story set in deepest, darkest space in which Alfonso Cuarón gives his imagination free rein.

On one level, Gravity is a fairground thrill ride of a movie, a 3D adventure offering spectacle, scale and a sense of wonder that no planetarium could match. "Set your watches for 90 minutes!" an astronaut tells us early on – and that is the exact length of the movie. At a time when cinemas still cynically ramp up prices for 3D fare, Cuarón, like James Cameron in Avatar and Ang Lee in The Life of Pi, is pushing the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the format to new limits. What also makes Gravity so special is that it has a lyricism and intimacy that you rarely find in gadget-obsessed sci-fi movies.

The film underlines the virtuosity of Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. On his collaborations with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, To the Wonder), Lubezki has tended to use natural light and handheld camera. Malick challenges him to improvise and capture the moment. On Gravity, by contrast, everything is pre-planned. The effects he contrives here are magical. The early scenes, in which we see Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) making minor repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, are especially startling. For minutes on end, there is no cutting. The astronauts glide toward and away from us in what seems like a graceful slow motion.

Clooney's wisecracking with the folk back in Mission Control in Houston belies the fact that the astronauts are alone in the vastness of space. The film-makers use the 3D to accentuate the sense that, for all their technology, they are isolated and powerless. They're in an environment in which there is no oxygen. The overture, which rekindles memories of sequences in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, is beautifully shot, laced with humour but also chilling. Space is silent – and this enables the film-makers to play ingenious games with sound editing and music. We hear country music. There are rumblings and reverberations on the soundtrack. Steven Price's electronic soundtrack accentuates the eeriness.

At times, we could almost be watching an animated film. The two leads are in their big helmets and white Michelin man suits. It was smart of Cuarón to cast such distinctive stars. Most audiences know Sandra Bullock and George Clooney well enough to be able to visualise them as characters even in the moments when we catch only fleeting glimpses of their faces.

Clooney is effortlessly charming as the laconic astronaut who behaves like a cross between Buzz Lightyear and a square-jawed hero in an old Howard Hawks Western. At the most fraught moments, he stays calm and continues to joke about breaking Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev's space-walk record. Bullock, who has the most prominent role, blows away memories of Miss Congeniality and various other lightweight roles she has taken over the years with a fearlessly intense performance. Her character is on her first mission and doesn't want to show vulnerability. Her sheer bloody-minded fight for survival is what gives the film its drama. Ryan, we learn early, is a grieving mother but rather than treat her loss as an excuse for despair, she uses the memory of her daughter to drive her on.

Gravity has a short dream sequence –- and it is ironic that this is the one normal scene in which we see characters talking together without helmets.

When debris from a Russian satellite comes hurtling toward the astronauts, a sudden sense of speed, violence and menace is introduced into a film notable in its early scenes for its abstract, ethereal quality. In most thrillers, there is a constant interplay between action and contemplative moments. Here, such distinctions are often blurred. In space, everything seems to slow down. Even at the most fraught moments, Cuarón gives us a sense of awe and foreboding.

As Cuarón and his co-screenwriter son Jonás have made clear, their original intention was simply to tell a story about human beings dealing with adversity. There have been countless other movies about characters stranded a long, long way from home. The difference here is that they’re not caught on a mountain, stuck on top of a towering inferno or stranded at sea. They are over three hundred miles above the Earth.

Cuarón contrasts the awesomely spectacular shots of space and of the Earth far below ("can't beat the view" Clooney wisecracks) with huge close-ups of the panicked astronauts. There are even some point of view shots in which we see events through their smudged and sweaty Perspex visors.

For all the technological sophistication of Gravity, the plot itself is pared down and primal. Bullock's character is in a battle against the elements, fire and water prominent among them. At one stage, we see her curled up like a foetus. As she somersaults through space, she memorably compares herself to a "chihuahua that has been tumble dried".

Not everything in the film works. There are repetitions. Cuarón offers us too many Sorcerer's Apprentice-style shots of everyday objects floating in front of us in 3D. These range from Rubik's Cubes to pens, nuts and bolts and ping-pong bats. Real-life astronauts have given the film their blessing but one or two artificial-looking scenes betray the fact the film was shot on sets at Shepperton and Pinewood, not in outer space. Overall, though, Gravity is awe-inspiring film-making with an originality and level of crasftmanship that leaves most other blockbusters looking leaden.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn