VENICE – “Gravity” opens, in coy denial of the mammoth imagery soon to follow, with modest white letters on a black screen, spelling out facts about outer space that sound more than a little like threats. “Life in space is impossible,” the titles conclude, after warning us off with daunting details of distance, physics and unimaginable cold. It”s a simple and – at least from a terrestrial perspective – pretty inarguable thesis that Alfonso Cuarón”s astonishing new film nonetheless goes to great, gruelling and frequently gasp-inducing pains to illustrate, before opening up less certain possibilities with a sudden surge in its own emotional temperature. Life in space is a no-go, sure. But what about life after?
It”s been seven long years since Cuarón, the serenely versatile Mexican stylist capable of finding grace notes in raunchy south-of-the-border road trips and Harry Potter alike, last visited our screens with a chilling fantasy that now sits as an unwittingly perfect bookend to his latest: in “Children of Men,” life scarcely seems possible on Earth.
Both films are visions of otherworldly worlds that look and sound nothing like their many previous cinematic realisations: industrial dystopia has never seemed less future-chic and more irreversibly barren than in “Men,” and space has never seemed bigger, more unknown, more outer than it does in “Gravity.” Both films navigate their unchartered territories with a hopefulness that could only be described paradoxically as despairing: for Sandra Bullock”s numbly bereaved medical engineer Ryan, as for the freakish newborn who emerges at the close of “Men,” survival is a short-term instinct with few known long-term rewards.
Meanwhile, life in space – impossible and urgently temporary as it may be – is pretty unbeatable, relieving its inhabitants of all accepted rules and limitations of physicality, movement and sound travel; it”s 45 years since Kubrick”s “2001: A Space Odyssey” effectively patented the description “the ultimate trip,” but that doesn”t mean Cuarón and his team can”t further serve and substantiate it. Certainly, the unfeasibly mobile camera of Cuarón”s loyal, invaluable cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki seems drugged – or perhaps purely entranced – by its possibilities, gliding and weaving across seemingly impracticable distances with a deliberate fluidity that no previous screen depiction of weightlessness (whether in outer space or the subconscious hotel suites of Christopher Nolan”s mind) has come close to approximating. (You”d also have to go back to Wim Wenders” “Pina” to find a film that demands this compellingly to be made and seen in 3D, and even that”s in a different ballpark.) When I stood up as the final credit rolled, I don”t mind admitting that I immediately had to sit down again, a Bambi-like wobble coursing through my limbs, as if I’d just re-encountered gravity myself. For sheer transference of experience upon the audience, I can think of no film quite like it.
Cuarón and Lubezki open the film straight away with a series of long, silky takes that luxuriate in gravity-free sensation, as three astronauts float with uncanny, disorientating ease through a routine spacewalk that only an astronaut could conceivably describe as “routine”. Ryan, on her first mission, at least has the good grace to look bewildered as they orbit their own spacecraft, bobbing and treading through the infinite blackness as through water; the more experienced Matt (George Clooney at his most glibly Clooney-esque, an atonal distraction that the film only gradually reveals as a virtue) banters with flirtatious geniality as she tetchily sets about her task, though it”s clear even he hasn”t become immune to awe in his privileged profession.
If the film ever explains exactly what the nature of their mission is, the details went right by me: Cuarón is concerned only with the stunning physical reality – or, to apply an abused term that here feels wholly apt, sur-reality – of their being there. Cinema is rife with space operas – this can only be described as space ballet, its human figures dancing even as they”re dying.
And die they do, in at least one of three cases, as disaster obviously strikes and the dance tumbles and speeds up into a far more perilous, but equally exquisite, freefall. “I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Matt jokes near the start – the first of several stock action-film lines the film reclaims with disquieting sincerity, as flying debris from a destroyed neighboring satellite lays waste to their craft. Cue a series of catastrophic collisions and attritions that are unsettlingly muffled by the unearthly silence of Chris Munro and Glenn Freemantle”s remarkable sound design: screaming is one thing, but in this film”s space, no one can hear you crash.
I”m loath to explain the circumstances that ultimately require Ryan to navigate her own path back to Earth: partly because the film”s sharp, unexpectedly sentiment-soaked emotional switchbacks deserve protection, but also because story feels secondary to “Gravity” in the best possible way. Feeling is narrative here – physical feeling, psychological feeling, bruised and agitated either way – as the film ceases star-gazing (without dialling back on the gobsmacking pyrotechnics and deep-focus space vistas) to concentrate on the in-the-moment specifics of Ryan”s survival. Effortlessly sympathetic and resolute even when cocooned to the point of invisibility in a spacesuit, Sandra Bullock puts her impressively restrained performance to the fore just when the film needs her to, without straying from the character”s slightly dour vulnerability or succumbing to focus-pulling bravado; it”s a role that at once requires a movie star, and requires her not to be one.
Some may feel disconcerted or even disappointed that “Gravity” shifts from a mode of cool (even avant-garde) observational spectacle to a more human-focused survival story – you might choose to see it as a bloodless final-girl horror movie. The gear change comes with unceremonious abruptness, yet I couldn”t tell you if it”s later or earlier than halfway through. It may not sound like high praise that I had no sense of timing throughout this thrillingly brief 91-minute film, but I imagine you can”t feel the minutes ticking by in space either. The immersive rhythmic continuity of Lubezki”s camerawork and Cuarón and Mark Sanger”s deceptively tight editing is such that it”s hard to mentally organize the film into scenes and sequences after the fact.
I do know, though, that “Gravity” ends in a wholly different register – tonally, visually, emotionally – to the one it begins in, as Cuarón embraces both the Hollywood trappings and, more riskily, the amorphous spirituality of his script with an emphatic lack of apology. (I felt my own conviction waver in a tricky late scene with Clooney that edges on patriarchal Old Hollywood syrup, but the emotional payoff is rousing enough to justify the means.) There”s a note of bombast to the finale that feels hard-earned after the staggering physical trials of what has gone before, and I do mean staggering: “Gravity” is a film both short and vast, muscular and quivery, as certain about one Great Beyond as it is curious about another.