Billed as one of the best films of the year, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity certainly stands out amongst the crowd. Cuarón’s directing back catalogue boasts the third and best installment of the Harry Potter series The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and my aforementioned third favourite foreign language film, the fantastic, erotic road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001). What appeals to me about these two films is the strength and human-ness (muggle-ness) of their narratives. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a stunning and completely relatable film about human emotion and the need for the possibility of reaching the utopian nirvana of the fabled beach called ‘Heaven’s Mouth’, as a means to cope with personal loss. Whilst The Prisoner of Azkaban is undoubtedly my favourite of J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter stories, and Cuarón’s screen rendition captures a balance in the characters’ childlike naivety and their maturing into adulthood, whilst the narrative similarly holds a balance in being well developed and at the same time uncomplicated. To draw a parallel between these two films, which Cuarón himself admits look ‘strange’ side-by-side in his filmography is difficult, but both are coming of age films with prominent visuals. With this considered, Gravity, a film set almost completely in the loneliness of space seemed like a giant leap for this Mexican director.
Gravity if it can be considered to have a fully functioning narrative, is a story of human survival. The film sees rookie Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her companion Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) attempting to repair the Hubble Space Telescope from the Space Shuttle Explorer. They engage in lighthearted banter through their headsets with one another and ground control in Houston, whilst their astronaut radio provides a soundtrack, and stunning visuals of Earth create a backdrop. The pesky Russians firing a missile at one of their own defunct satellites, which creates an unexplained chain reaction sending a storm of razor sharp space metal into a destructive 90-minute orbit, however disrupts their mission. The impact flings Dr. Stone into space, spiraling her away from Space Shuttle Explorer; the voice of Kowalski in her earpiece provides the only solace in an utterly terrifying situation. Eventually Kowalski locates her in the vast expanse of space, and as the only survivors they use his jetpack to transport themselves across to the visible International Space Station (ISS). The ISS they believe will provide a safe-haven and transport home before the shrapnel completes its circle of Earth and hits again.
To reveal any more of the plot would ruin your experience of the film, for it is completely dependent on the suspense it creates as the two attempt to survive against what seems like impossible odds. We are provided with some context of Dr. Stone’s life on Earth, which reveals to us that she is as helplessly afloat with or without the stabilizing force of gravity. What is also interesting is that after the Russians have caused this god-awful mess, something that we expect of Hollywood cinema, the Mexican director unexpectedly allows them, along with the Chinese, to provide a helping hand in the American pair’s fight for survival. Moreover it uses various religious icons to provide comfort in an environment that forces questions about life and existence.
It is not the strength of script or narrative that make this film one of the best this year, for they are relatively inexistent. Nor is it the strength of performances, which whilst solid, are relatively interchangeable. The two could easily be played by, say, Angelina Jolie and Robert Downy Jr, as was originally intended, or any other pair of seasoned Hollywood talents. Instead it is the visuals and experience of watching this film that will rake in the awards. Ian Nathan writes in his review for Empire magazine that Gravity is a ‘marvel of filmmaking reach, it is a testament to what can be achieved with modern technologies set the challenge of putting the audience at the absolute centre of the most extreme jeopardy imaginable — to be adrift in space.’ This is true, it is a film made for 3D, with its orbiting debris, and floating objects, it lends itself perfectly to the medium. It places the audience in the centre of the action and allows us to experience the situation to a point short of actually being there. To this extent Gravity is a great, if not excellent film, which will keep you entertained and gripped throughout its modest hour and a half running time. A length that allows the audience not to feel too stuck, as they experience being stranded in space alongside Bullock and Clooney. Finally, in relation to Cuarón’s previous screen expeditions, pleasingly there are parallels to be found between Y Tu Mama Tambien, The Prisoner of Azkaban and Gravity. However small these are, I will leave them for you to find through fear of revealing too much.