Genuinely great science fiction films are few and far between. This leads to a curious trait in genre fans; the hunger for the next classic reaches fever pitch every so often, resulting in a game of extremes, with perfectly decent efforts being dismissed with unwarranted vitriol and gargantuan expectations placed on the next great hope. In this cycle, four years since Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009) took no prisoners, Ridley Scott’s divisive Prometheus (2012) and Joseph Kosinski’s glossy Oblivion (2013) became the undeserved whipping boys, with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) becoming the latest potential beacon of light.
This won’t be the film many were expecting but as pure spectacle cinema, Gravity is breathtaking. Following NASA astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) adrift in space after debris hits their space station, this is such an overwhelming visual experience, that it’s easy to ignore just how traditional it is. It’s a film driven by sound and vision, not necessarily ideas. Indeed, the thematic touchstone is the Hollywood survival movie, not the philosophical, transgressive sci-fi of Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972) or Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (despite one particularly laboured visual reference to the latter).
Audience reaction will depend on the demands they place on the genre; if it’s a meditative insight into the human condition you’re after, then look elsewhere. But, for heart-stopping effects and nail-biting tension, Gravity is the blockbuster to beat in 2013. Cuarón’s chameleon-like eclecticism has always had a single consistent thread running through it; the capacity to create sterling set pieces that are executed with rare, intelligent brio. From the pounding central chase sequence in P.D. James adaptation Children of Men (2006) to the improbably bravura final act of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the Mexican director is clearly an artist with an intuitive grasp of what genuinely thrills audiences of all ages.
Gravity takes this directorial trait to the next level, with numerous moment of awe-inspiring excitement. He eschews the frantic cutting we have come to expect from Hollywood tent-poles, instead favouring long, gliding shots that immerse you in the film and give it its distinct rhythm. The camera feels like it’s floating in space alongside Bullock and Clooney, moving in close then swooping by them, lost in the unpredictable pull of gravity just like the pair. It’s a superb technique, giving Cuarón the opportunity to indulge in small character moments at the same time as showcasing the picture’s state-of-the-art effects.
Cuarón takes a carefully considered approach to scale, allowing the film to play like a chamber piece, albeit against the enormity of infinite space. Given the passion and workmanship that’s evident in the technical ambition, it would seem churlish to bemoan the film’s reluctance to explore the broader themes that are only hinted at, but it still feels like a missed opportunity – especially given that Cuarón has displayed a willingness to dig deeper in previous work. It may not detract from Gravity’s significant impact on a sensory level, but it’s a legitimate gripe nonetheless when delving beneath the veil of industry hype.