24 Lies a Second: The Big Black

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The Big Black

As long-term readers should be well aware, I am member in good standing of the Kermodian sect of film-followers, which is to say that under normal circumstances I will happily go a very long way to avoid seeing a film in 3D. I can't have seen more than half-a-dozen or so, certainly not more than ten, and most of those because the movie in question wasn't released in a 2D format. Of those the only one in which the stereoscopy didn't feel like a tedious piece of gimmickry was Hugo, and that was two years ago. However, now I have to add another film to that list, and the film in question is Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. Even Dr K himself has gone on the record to concede that (and I quote) 'Gravity is worth seeing in 3D'' – such a startling announcement, all things considered, that it surely signifies the coming of a really exceptional piece of work. And so it proves' – we are so routinely bombarded with superlatives these days that they have lost any real meaning, which means that this will inevitably not have the impact I would wish, but nevertheless' – Gravity is an astonishingly good movie, head and shoulders above virtually everything else released so far in 2013.

Sandra Bullock is way out of her usual rom-com comfort zone as a space scientist, which is not inappropriate given her character is way out of any sort of comfort zone. Ryan Stone (for this is her name) is a mission specialist on a space shuttle mission to refit the Hubble Space Telescope. It is her first time in space and she is having trouble acclimatising, not least because there is no climate in the first place. She is a complete contrast to the commander, Kowalski (George Clooney), a hugely experienced veteran on his final mission prior to retirement.

All is going reasonably well until news reaches the astronauts of an unfolding disaster in orbit, resulting in a dense cloud of debris travelling around the planet at supersonic speeds. The shuttle is in the path on the debris, and a close encounter between the two could have devastating consequences for the crew...

And that's just the first five minutes (albeit of a relatively short film by modern standards). To say too much about what follows would inevitably reduce the impact of the story, but suffice to say that Stone and Kowalski are instantly flung into life-threatening danger which persists for the rest of the film, one way or another.

It all starts quietly enough, though: after captions deliver some salutary information about the hostility of hard vacuum to life as we know it, the film opens with a peaceful, breathtaking shot of Earth rotating. Nothing happens for what feels like a long time, until' – with almost imperceptible slowness' – the orbiting shuttle comes into view, slowly swelling to fill the screen. The camera lazily loops and spins around the vehicle, taking in Clooney lazily jetting around it by means of a new type of jetpack, a tense Bullock at work on a grappled Hubble, and so on' – both actors' faces are clearly visible. And this goes on for what feels like eternity, in what does an extremely good impression of being a single, unbroken shot. It's utterly, utterly extraordinary, and makes the opening of Touch of Evil feel very pedestrian (not that this is really a fair comparison).

You are inevitably reduced to wondering how the hell Cuaron achieved this, how many different CGI and blue-screen elements are interacting in this single shot, and so on' – but then, almost miraculously, the droll dialogue between Clooney and Mission Control (Ed Harris), and the obvious tension that Bullock is feeling, sucks you into the story and the characters, and your sense of sheer confoundment at the technical wizardry' – and for once this does not feel like too strong a word for it' – is reduced to a dull background roar. The actual plot is much too compelling for anything else.

Maybe Cuaron has tricked everyone and actually made the film on location in orbit. Or possibly he just managed to track down the people who faked the moon landings and got them to help him out. I would argue, not that it matters, that Gravity isn't really a science fiction movie, as' – the existence of a NASA orbiter programme excepted' – everything in it is completely grounded in the realities of manned spaceflight, but even so it is one of the most convincing depictions of space travel I can recall seeing. Issues such as inertia, momentum, orbital velocity and reaction mass are crucially important again and again' – even the difficulties of using a fire extinguisher in zero gravity are addressed. There do seem to be some implied references to classic SF and space movies, most of them very deadpan' – Harris' involvement is surely a reference to his very similar role in Apollo 13, while later on I'm sure there's a wry tip of the hat to Barbarella, of all things' – but these are very incidental pleasures. The film is content to concentrate on being an utterly gripping drama.

If Gravity was simply a technically superb thriller set in orbit, given the virtuosity of its production it would still be a very notable piece of work. What elevates it to the status of a breathtaking instant classic is that the heart of the film is a deeply resonant and very moving human drama. The film is fundamentally about isolation and loneliness, about being cut off from the world. This is true of Stone both physically and psychologically, and the deftness with which the film makes this clear and charts her progress back towards something approaching normal reality is, in its own way, every bit as impressive as any of the special effects or directorial flourishes which Cuaron deploys. The key scene at the end of the second act of the film may well prove a little controversial to some people' – whether it's a brilliantly executed piece of metaphor or a hackneyed old cliche will probably be a matter of personal taste' – but apart from this text and subtext complement each other perfectly and the result is a film which works brilliantly on every level.

The advertising for Gravity seems to be based largely on the film's credentials both as a thriller adventure and a groundbreaking piece of 3D virtuosity. And both of these are, as I hope I've been able to communicate, deeply impressive. But it's the human factor which really gives the film its power, and it's the performances of Clooney and Bullock which bring it to life so vividly. This is an amazingly beautiful, desperately gripping, and in places profoundly moving film, as close to unmissable as any I have seen in recent years. Many Oscars await, if the award is to retain any credibility.

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