Gravity ★★★½

Alfonso Cuaron’s long in development, Gravity, finally arrives in the UK with stratospheric expectations - expectations that few films are ever likely to match. It is a lean and palpable disaster thriller as two astronauts attempt to survive an accident in the most inhospitable environment known to man - space.

Featuring some of the most jaw-dropping special effects ever committed to film, Gravity is a technical tour de force that rivals the experience of watching Jurassic Park for the very first time. The level of immersion is quite literally breathtaking as Cuaron and his technical team take the audience on a white-knuckle ride through space with our two helpless survivors desperately clinging to life and dwindling hope.

It is a film born for the big screen as the audience is immediately dropped into a terrifying situation as a routine space walk goes horribly wrong leaving a medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) and a veteran astronaut (George Clooney) adrift in space and rapidly running out of options. The opening sequence is a visual marvel as the camera and characters spin around a satellite in an uninterrupted shot that boggles the mind and immediately places you in an incomprehensible situation and environment.

Cuaron has delivered a disaster movie like no other; not only reconstructing space like we have never seen before but also tapping into a very recognisable primal fear - being helplessly alone. At its best, Gravity manages to capture both the majesty and magnified terror of space and a genuine sense of unease as the pair face a series of unimaginable choices and perilous setbacks.

As the tumbling astronauts desperately fight for their lives, Earth provides a constant visual anchor acting as both a beacon of hope and a reminder of what they may lose. Cuaron’s great skill, beyond the virtuosic long takes and stunning and seamlessly integrated special effects, is being able to make such an extraordinary situation relatable to an audience sitting comfortably on terra firma.

However, whilst Gravity may be an unrivalled experience it does not necessarily make it a great film. Instead it achieves the rare and unexpected feat of being simultaneously exhilarating and disappointing. It is an exquisitely crafted theme park ride that delivers short term thrills but little else and it is hard to imagine it working half as well at home or on repeated viewings. Whilst it possesses bold visual choices it is repeatedly undermined by stock characterisation, risible dialogue and corny sentimentality.

I found myself constantly in conflict with the film from the outset. Although immersed and invested in the perilous journey I was forever being taken out of the moment by some of its less successful decisions that stem predominantly from its characters. Whilst Cuaron and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, continue to push the boundaries of what is technically possible the script falls back on hoary stereotypes that often undermine the film’s palpable tension. From Clooney’s final mission to the emotional baggage Bullock’s character carries with her, every character choice feels tired and cheesy, as does the film’s numerous religious cues.

The dubious characterisation is reinforced by awful and incessant dialogue that dampens the film’s knife-edge suspense. Even though in space nobody can hear you scream they sure as hell can hear you waffle on endlessly about your life. If the audience isn’t being forced to sit through cliched exchanges they are bombarded by an overwhelming score. Given its frequent references to the silence of space it is a shame the absence of sound plays such a small part in the film (I would almost welcome a dialogue and score free director’s cut to see if it improved the experience).

Neither the audience or film is given any time to breathe. Due to its meticulous preparation all life and spontaneity is sucked from the screen. Whilst this painstaking planning delivers the film’s most impressive moments there is a sense that the actors are constantly battling the constraints whilst being saddled with poor characters. The fact Sandra Bullock still delivers such a strong performance is impressive even when the film is overrun by cloying melodrama and on-the-nose creation imagery.

Yet, come the end, the film’s sheer forcefulness and spectacle just about outweighs the numerous narrative issues. Gravity is a unique cinematic experience that delivers awe-inspiring visuals and heart-in-mouth tension, it is only a shame it still succumbs to the same problems that continually plague the modern blockbuster.

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