Physics is a bitch. It’s a lesson Sandra Bullock and George Clooney learn within the first 10 minutes of Gravity. As two members of a three-man spacewalk (the billing of the third member, Paul Sharma, gives you some idea of how long he lasts), they’re stranded in Earth orbit after debris from a Russian satellite cripples their Space Shuttle. With oxygen running low and communication with Earth cut off, they’re left to find their own sanctuary in the airless, frictionless void of space.
For most of us, the idea of being stranded in space is so remote a possibility that we’re unlikely to get anxious about it. Or at least it used to be. Space exploration, Gravity reminds us, is an exercise in extreme isolation. Alone for most of the running time, Bullock finds her tiny, tinfoil and glass world becoming an extension of her own psyche: a place far from home, where the only point of sane reference is her own mind.
This focus on metaphor places Gravity in the fine tradition of conceptual sci-fi. Here, as in Silent Running, Solaris and Sunshine, there’s the idea that man has to go as far out as possible in order to find himself. Across the course of the movie, Bullock grows from frightened child into self-reliant adult, reminding us how many of man’s limitations are self-imposed. Science-fiction is the genre of metaphor, after all.
All this makes it a much more personal affair than 2001: A Space Odyssey (the milestone to which all semi-competent sci-fi is inevitably compared), but there is something of Kubrick in the film’s cinematography. There is the same balletic elegance to the zero-gravity movement, though here that beauty is counterpointed by danger. The ballerina can put out a foot to catch herself if she slips: for the astronaut, there is nothing to stop them spinning elegantly away into infinity.
That terrifying emptiness is juxtaposed with the oppressive confinement of the astronauts’ spacesuits. In space, there is no sound but that which is conducted through your own clothing. The result is a soundscape as claustrophobic as if the characters were underwater. Or buried alive.
The documentary realism constructs a reality within which the chaos can occur. There are no cheats, save a bit of physics only astrophysicists are going to worry about (and the whole of Earth orbit appears to be about the size of a car park). Every victory is earned, every loss felt. Everything operates on the edge of capacity, and you will, I promise, watch on the edge of your seat.
Gravity is available on DVD and Blu-ray now