23 October 2013

"Houston, I Have a Bad Feeling about This Mission"

As I left the preview screening of Alfonso CuarĂ³n's new movie Gravity this evening, I was walking in front of a group of guys who were far from impressed. "I can't believe a film that was under 90 minutes could drag so much," one of them complained. I feel like we saw different movies, because after an hour and a half of edge-of-the-seat, compelling viewing, I felt physically and emotionally drained. I found Gravity nerve-wrenching and (literally) breathtaking — it took a good 20 minutes before my breathing was completely back to normal. As usual, I try not to give too many spoilers, but this is one of those films where the less you know, the more you will enjoy the experience.

When Gravity opens with a view of the Earth from way, way above, the first thing you notice is how quiet it is. No one can hear you scream, remember? Then amid the eerie silence, the faint crackle of a communications system kicks in, and we zoom out to see two astronauts, Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) trying to fix an imaging device on their space shuttle. Stone, a medical engineer, is on her first mission, while it's Kowalsky's grand finale. They're having a grand old time with mission control, back in Houston, chipping in with the odd instruction while Kowalsky banters away.

But then disaster strikes and some debris thought to result from a Russian missile strike destroys the shuttle, leaving Stone and Kowalsky tumbling through space, any contact with Houston completely ruptured. I saw the film in 3D and it was highly effective, especially in these opening scenes: you really feel as though you are whirling through space, as disorientated as Dr Stone. "You try keeping your lunch down in zero G," she complains, and I could sympathise!  It is as she starts to spiral around that we finally get to see a close up of her face, and she is terrified. Stone starts to panic, hyperventilating and using up huge amounts of oxygen, but thanks to Kowalsky's calm but authoritative instructions, coupled with some light banter and moderate flirting, he is able to grab hold of her and tether her to him. There are no other survivors on their shuttle: as they explore, things fly past them (and thanks to the 3D, past us too: a toy, a brace, a face. "I hate space," Stone mutters.

A number of problems remain, most notably Stone's rapidly depleting oxygen tank. Then, although they are relatively close to the International Space Station (ISS), Kowalsky thinks the escape pod thingy (technical term!) has probably been destroyed by the debris explosions, and the next nearest man-made structure is a Chinese space station some 100 km away. Oh, and there will probably be more debris in another 90 minutes. However, on the bright side Kowalsky knows where the Russians keep their vodka on the ISS, so swings and roundabouts...

I won't say anything more about the plot or the story, but suffice to say that it's a real nail-biter, but with a few funny moments sprinkled in to break up the tension. Clooney and Bullock are wonderful together. He is playing his charming, Nespresso Man: "I know you never realised how devastatingly good-looking I am until now, but you've got to stop staring and focus." When Stone and Kowalsky become separated, we follow Stone, but the conversation doesn't dry up as she talks to herself, and remembering what Kowalsky told her, to Houston, just in case they can hear her after all.

The film becomes a lot more philosophical at this point. Stone has an existential crisis — should she even bother to fight to survive? Would anyone back home even miss her? As Kowalsky kept saying, it's beautiful up there, and there's nobody up there who can hurt her. When she manages to contact a someone back on Earth through the radio, she begs him to pray for her, even though they don't speak the same language and even though she's never prayed before. This reminded me of Francesca in Canto V of Dante's Inferno. Francesca, who is doomed to be buffeted around by a "bufera infernal" as penance for daring to read saucy Arthurian romances with her dead husband's brother Paolo, begs the pilgrim to pray for her soul. As part of their punishment, Francesca and Paolo are bound together in a single body — not unlike the way Stone and Kowalsky tether themselves together in the face of the space storm.

Visually stunning, gripping and with great performances, particularly from Bullock, Gravity is one hell of a ride. I'd recommend seeing it in 3D — and I'm sure it would be even better at an IMAX cinema.

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