(Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)
There's a long, sensational sequence in Brian DePalma's Mission To Mars where two astronauts attempt a risky, complicated manoeuvre while on a spacewalk. DePalma films it in long takes, his camera emphasising the immensity of the cosmos around his tiny characters.
Gravity takes that sequence and stretches it out until it fills the entire film - one extended survival set-piece, filled with intense moments of peril and superbly orchestrated spectacle.
Cuarón demonstrated an ability to utilise quite unbelievably long takes without sacrificing any of his storytelling abilities in his last film, the magnificent Children of Men, and here he pushes that even further, telling this story in a lengthy series of single shots, his cgi-assisted camera looping and circling through space around his astronauts as they scramble desperately to hold onto life in a place where there is literally nothing to hold onto.
The story opens with a brief procedural section as we observe three astronauts on a spacewalk hundreds of kilometres above Earth. Matt (George Clooney, his affable confidence put to great, unexpectedly moving use) zips around with a new jet-pack, amusing Houston (the voice of Ed Harris in a double reference to both The Right Stuff and Apollo 13) with oft-told anecdotes, while Ryan (Sandra Bullock) struggles with the nausea that comes with zero gravity and the installation of her own technology onto a satellite. A few minutes in, everything goes wrong. A destroyed Russian satellite has created a chain reaction and a field of debris is approaching in orbit, travelling at thousands of miles an hour. When it hits, only Ryan and Matt survive, and they need to use his jetpack to make it to the International Space Station, a hundred miles away. But the debris field is coming back around, and theres no guarantee they'll be able to get off the ISS once they get there.
What it boils down to is a grim, determined struggle for survival against horrible odds, which Ryan must overcome alone as one problem is succeeded by another, then another, each of them arriving with an awful feeling of inevitability.
So for all the brilliance of its technical achievement and its unique evocation of a world seldom seen with this sort of vivid realism in cinema, it is the smallest, most human dimension which registers most powerfully here. Ryan develops as a character through her actions, her ingenuity and refusal to give up, her essential, moving humanity, meaning that the audience is rooting for her from very early on.
But this is also a film about light, about the odd quality of the light in space, where it bounces off the luminous globe hanging nearby, where it feels unfiltered and pure. And about space, in both senses, the stars and cosmos and how beautiful they are, but also about how we perceive the space around us, all our certainties torn away by the infinite abyss of zero gravity, no up or down, everything around. Lubezki's photography is beautiful, and the ultimate tribute to the elegance of his and Cuarón's methodology is that after a while you forget to notice it and just focus upon the story. The long takes just become the way the story is told until something breathtaking happens - the destruction of the ISS is a truly stunning sequence, filled with moments which seem like they can not possibly be topped - until they are; and these scenes are anchored, as always, by Bullock's fine performance.
The camera spends an inordinate amount of time centimetres from her face, inside her helmet - among other things, Gravity is a fine exploration of how claustrophobia and agorophobia can co-exist - and she responds with an unusually subtle performance. Ryan is a character who hides her emotions, and so her implosion and recovery are harder to to read, but Bullock makes sure they're there, and Cuarón emphasises a few with zero gravity as a hook: making her tears float towards the camera, for instance. He also posits her as a sort of everywoman, using her as an element in the frame for a foetal shot and for another final shot likewise evoking Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, where her rise from the primordial ooze suggests nothing so much as man's evolution to a race able to fly among the stars...
Gravity, then, may be thematically slight, even modest, but Cuarón knows exactly what he wants to achieve, and he makes everything about this film work. It is taut, beautifully made in every particular, and probably the best pure rollercoaster ride we've seen in a few years.