Film: Gravity

The opening sequences alone would make Gravity worth the price of a ticket, but happily the rest of the film keeps reminding you of everything that can go horribly wrong in space.

Alfonso Cuarón is known for his preposterously long takes. Think of his 2006 film Children of Men, specifically the single-shot 4-minute long sequence of a car ambush in a forest. The choreography of the shot is so seamless you feel you're watching something miraculously caught on home video: there is no fourth wall for the camera to hide behind and distance the viewer from the action, so you become one of the passengers crammed in a car speeding through a criminal-infested backwater.

Cuarón's new film Gravity takes this technique and expands it for an hour and a half. In the same way the viewer was inside the ambushed car, Gravity places us not just alongside but inside the space suits of its astronauts. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are servicing the Hubble Space Telescope when Houston radios up from Earth telling them to abort their mission. The Russians have exploded one of their defunct satellites and chunks of rogue debris are heading directly for Stone and Kowalski's crew. This sequence easily makes the film, but the remaining 80 minutes speed by with the momentum of a rollercoaster.

But the worst rollercoaster imaginable could not be more nauseating than Gravity. Rollercoasters rarely disintegrate mid-ride, and even more rarely are they suspended 600 km above the surface of the Earth where the slightest accidental bump will send it careering endlessly into space as oxygen runs out. "Don't Let Go" reads the tagline of Gravity, and this simple piece of advice underscores one of the recurring thrills of the film: cringing and writhing in your seat as characters bounce like corks off the exterior of satellites, grasping for handholds before they ricochet off into nothingness. Typically of Cuarón’s directorial style, Gravity’s most peculiar and daring shots are its most effective. Aside from the agonisingly long takes that leave you in the midst of a satellite falling apart, first-person shots place us inside Stone's helmet, where panicked breathing fogs up the visor and two arms extend from the bottom of the cinema screen, hoisting us along the fuselage of a space station to the safety of the entry hatch.

The sound, or lack thereof, bizarrely compliments Gravity’sdizzying but beautiful cinematography. Without an atmosphere there is no way for sound waves in space to propagate, so the frequent violent collisions of the film occur in eerie silence, broken only by the breathing and muffled yells of the characters. Witnessing destructive projectiles of satellite debris silently blasting holes through other satellites has an unsettling effect, almost as if we so associate impacts with noise that without sound we expect them to be less powerful. It is a triumph of special effects though to watch these catastrophes unfold in such detail and be terrified despite the silence.

Some criticism has been directed at the clunky dialogue, but this is forgivable. It would be hard to make a film where characters voicing their thoughts in complete isolation would come across as natural, while it would be even harder to remove dialogue entirely in scenes where it might appear unnatural. Think one astronaut in an armchair-like propulsion pack tugging another astronaut by cable to a very distant shuttle: a very odd situation where conversation might be unlikely. The oppressive silence here is broken by the first significant conversation of the film. All the same though, back stories providing character motivations are clumsily inserted into the narrative, not the least when Stone brings up her troubled past.

The opening sequences alone would make Gravity worth the price of a ticket, but happily the rest of the film keeps reminding you of everything that can go horribly wrong in space. It's impossible to forget you're in a cinema, but at the same time it's almost impossible to disconnect yourself from the constant vertigo and nausea of hurtling through space with nothing to hold onto.

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