As misfortune stacks upon tragedy in Alfonso Cuaron’s deep space survival thriller, the film’s stricken heroine greets her seemingly inevitable demise with a moment of deadpan humour.
“I hate space,” she sighs, resigned to her terrifying fate.
We hate it too by the heart-breaking conclusion of Gravity, which puts its lead character through the physical and emotional wringer as she drifts through that inky void, which will become her tomb.
Scripted by Cuaron and his son Jonas, the film is lean and runs to a sprightly 91 minutes, most of which will be spent marvelling at the virtuosity of the camerawork, editing and spectacular visual effects.
Avatar and Life Of Pi may have pushed the boundaries of 3D but Gravity propels the format into another universe. It is a film that demands to be seen on the largest possible screen, preferably IMAX 3D, which gives the impression of floating with the astronauts as they face life-or-death choices.
Cuaron opens in silence with the striking orb of planet earth slowly rotating like a sleeping giant. Gradually, the Space Shuttle Explorer comes into view, docked close to the Hubble Space Telescope.
Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran of the space program on his final mission, provides encouragement to fellow astronaut Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) and specialist Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is in space for the first time.
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” jokes Kowalski as he yammers with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris), keeping the mood light as the three-strong team completes its delicate and precise work.
Out of the blue, Mission Control orders Kowalski to abort the mission and return to Explorer: a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite has created a debris cloud that is heading straight towards the crew’s current position.
As Steven Price’s orchestral score reaches a deafening crescendo, razor-sharp debris rips apart Explorer, killing Shariff and hurtling Stone through space.
Kowalski attempts to keep her calm over the radio.
“What’s your favourite thing about being up here?” he asks soothingly.
“The silence,” she replies, “I could get used to it.”
If Kowalski cannot locate Stone before her dwindling oxygen supply runs out then that silence will consume her.
Gravity employs the latest ground-breaking technology to realise Cuaron’s startling vision of one woman battling against the odds in the one place that no one can hear her whimper and scream.
The complexity of the Mexican director’s vision, and the effortlessness with which he realises it, are jaw-dropping. All of the oxygen seems to be sucked out of the cinema in those disconcertingly calm opening minutes but once hell breaks loose, we’re gasping for air with Stone as the visual effects team throws everything at her and the screen.
Oscar winner Bullock delivers a compelling lead performance that might be her finest work to date, struggling to keep her emotions in check as she prepares to take her final breath and be reunited with her dead daughter.