‘The closest the earthbound can get to wandering heaven’

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity. Picture: Comp
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity. Picture: Comp
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‘I HATE space,” curses astronaut newbie Sandra Bullock. It’s a rare moment of levity in Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s old-fashioned film about faith, filmed with the latest 3D techniques.

Gravity (12A)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Running time: 91 minutes

Star rating: * * * *

The opening shot sets the tone: a 13-minute continuous sequence which reveals Earth, then the stars, and a ship with three astronauts, floating freely, trying to stick an extra bit of hardware on the Hubble telescope.

“Wheeee,” exults one of the astronauts, which is the galactic equivalent of showing another Second World War pilot a picture of your wife and kids before heading out on a mission. That’s not much of a spoiler, since he’s part of the film’s first disaster. A hail of space debris trashes the ship, cuts off communications with Ground Control, and leaves just two survivors: veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and nervous medical engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock) who has never been in space before. She also has mere minutes of oxygen left in her suit and the debris is due to return in about 90 minutes.

The movie countdown is now running, and if Stone manages to overcome her breathing difficulties, new obstacles will pop up with the regularity of a whack-a-mole game.

As well as external challenges, Ryan has other problems. She is both space sick and heart sick, with a heavy melancholy that makes you wonder how she passed Nasa’s rigorous psych tests. Kowalski is heartier and more practical, but he’s not always around.

This is not a film to pop into your DVD. The scale is epic, and the 3D soundscape and landscape are so astounding and vivid that when viewed at an Imax cinema it feels like the closest the earthbound can get to wandering heaven. This kind of envelope-pushing effects showcase is often associated with the likes of James Cameron, but less often with the Mexican director Cuarón, who made the third, and prettiest, Harry Potter movie, and the plangent Children Of Men. Gravity is filled with touches that capture the agoraphobia of being in vast emptiness, looking out through a space helmet or a ship’s porthole, and the soundscape is equally unnerving – crackling radio transmissions, violent yet soundless crashes and a lot of panicky panting by Bullock.

Thank goodness for Bullock, because without her the emotional panorama would feel a lot more limited. She may not be the greatest of serious actresses, but she has a likeability that makes Ryan’s despair touching and tangible. If you see this film, try picturing how Nicole Kidman would have carried Ryan’s melodramatic back story, or survived lairy scenes where the camera rests on a lithe Bullock wearing just a flattering vest and underpants. Sure, there’s a subtext about rebirth in the way she glides through a narrow spaceship channel, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of one Nasa employee’s observation that in reality, astronaut underwear is actually a bit of umbilical tubing and a giant nappy.

Despite the arresting imagery, and a fusion of spirituality and science, Gravity is not a movie with big ideas about big ideas, and compared with the mysticism of Kubrick’s 2001, it is as weightless as any big budget popcorn film. Yet it does spark with ambition, and often it is a thrilling physical experience. Not a giant leap perhaps, but a small step forward.

Twitter: @SiobhanSynnot


How To Survive A Plague

Star rating: * * * *

David France’s award-winning documentary relies chiefly on archive and home movies to shape an impressionistic narrative of America at a time when hospitals would turn away Aids patients and funding was blocked by conservative politicians until those affected took it upon themselves to fight back. What makes this raw history of activism moving is France’s focus on individual men and women – including playwrights Jim Eigo and Larry Kramer, press executive Bob Rafsky and retired chemist Iris Long. Despite some repetition, this is a compelling social document.

On selected release from Friday.

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Star rating: * * *

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Glasgow Film Theatre, Wednesday, as part of Glasgay! On general release from 22 November.