Gravity is a rarity, a big-budget studio movie that feels utterly personal. This isn't franchise film-making. It doesn't have super heroes. It isn't a sequel. Instead, it is a survival story set in deepest, darkest space in which Alfonso Cuarón gives his imagination free rein.
On one level, Gravity is a fairground thrill ride of a movie, a 3D adventure offering spectacle, scale and a sense of wonder that no planetarium could match. "Set your watches for 90 minutes!" an astronaut tells us early on – and that is the exact length of the movie. At a time when cinemas still cynically ramp up prices for 3D fare, Cuarón, like James Cameron in Avatar and Ang Lee in The Life of Pi, is pushing the technical and aesthetic possibilities of the format to new limits. What also makes Gravity so special is that it has a lyricism and intimacy that you rarely find in gadget-obsessed sci-fi movies.
The film underlines the virtuosity of Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. On his collaborations with Terrence Malick (Tree of Life, To the Wonder), Lubezki has tended to use natural light and handheld camera. Malick challenges him to improvise and capture the moment. On Gravity, by contrast, everything is pre-planned. The effects he contrives here are magical. The early scenes, in which we see Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) making minor repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope, are especially startling. For minutes on end, there is no cutting. The astronauts glide toward and away from us in what seems like a graceful slow motion.
Clooney's wisecracking with the folk back in Mission Control in Houston belies the fact that the astronauts are alone in the vastness of space. The film-makers use the 3D to accentuate the sense that, for all their technology, they are isolated and powerless. They're in an environment in which there is no oxygen. The overture, which rekindles memories of sequences in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: a Space Odyssey, is beautifully shot, laced with humour but also chilling. Space is silent – and this enables the film-makers to play ingenious games with sound editing and music. We hear country music. There are rumblings and reverberations on the soundtrack. Steven Price's electronic soundtrack accentuates the eeriness.
At times, we could almost be watching an animated film. The two leads are in their big helmets and white Michelin man suits. It was smart of Cuarón to cast such distinctive stars. Most audiences know Sandra Bullock and George Clooney well enough to be able to visualise them as characters even in the moments when we catch only fleeting glimpses of their faces.
Clooney is effortlessly charming as the laconic astronaut who behaves like a cross between Buzz Lightyear and a square-jawed hero in an old Howard Hawks Western. At the most fraught moments, he stays calm and continues to joke about breaking Russian cosmonaut Anatoly Solovyev's space-walk record. Bullock, who has the most prominent role, blows away memories of Miss Congeniality and various other lightweight roles she has taken over the years with a fearlessly intense performance. Her character is on her first mission and doesn't want to show vulnerability. Her sheer bloody-minded fight for survival is what gives the film its drama. Ryan, we learn early, is a grieving mother but rather than treat her loss as an excuse for despair, she uses the memory of her daughter to drive her on.
Gravity has a short dream sequence –- and it is ironic that this is the one normal scene in which we see characters talking together without helmets.
When debris from a Russian satellite comes hurtling toward the astronauts, a sudden sense of speed, violence and menace is introduced into a film notable in its early scenes for its abstract, ethereal quality. In most thrillers, there is a constant interplay between action and contemplative moments. Here, such distinctions are often blurred. In space, everything seems to slow down. Even at the most fraught moments, Cuarón gives us a sense of awe and foreboding.
Video: Official Gravity trailer
As Cuarón and his co-screenwriter son Jonás have made clear, their original intention was simply to tell a story about human beings dealing with adversity. There have been countless other movies about characters stranded a long, long way from home. The difference here is that they’re not caught on a mountain, stuck on top of a towering inferno or stranded at sea. They are over three hundred miles above the Earth.
Cuarón contrasts the awesomely spectacular shots of space and of the Earth far below ("can't beat the view" Clooney wisecracks) with huge close-ups of the panicked astronauts. There are even some point of view shots in which we see events through their smudged and sweaty Perspex visors.
For all the technological sophistication of Gravity, the plot itself is pared down and primal. Bullock's character is in a battle against the elements, fire and water prominent among them. At one stage, we see her curled up like a foetus. As she somersaults through space, she memorably compares herself to a "chihuahua that has been tumble dried".
Not everything in the film works. There are repetitions. Cuarón offers us too many Sorcerer's Apprentice-style shots of everyday objects floating in front of us in 3D. These range from Rubik's Cubes to pens, nuts and bolts and ping-pong bats. Real-life astronauts have given the film their blessing but one or two artificial-looking scenes betray the fact the film was shot on sets at Shepperton and Pinewood, not in outer space. Overall, though, Gravity is awe-inspiring film-making with an originality and level of crasftmanship that leaves most other blockbusters looking leaden.