Review by © Jane Freebury

The vast emptiness of space is now lodged in our collective imagination as a pretty unsettling concept. Maybe even harder to accept than extra-terrestrial monsters or alien forms of life. The idea that we may be alone in the void, with only a few microbes buried in soil some millions of light years away for company, is hard to get your head around. Is there anybody out there, please?

Nothingness doesn’t seem to bother medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), rookie member of a NASA team sent aloft to work on a Hubble telescope. It’s the silence she likes the most, though we do learn later why the lady wants to be alone. After a horrifying, deadly encounter with speeding debris the team is reduced to two, Stone and the mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran intent on marking his last mission with a space walk for the record books.

Bullock and Clooney make an intriguing combination but the screenplay doesn’t much capitalise on this odd couple of the sensible, congenial and sometimes dogged female persona and the gorgeous and effortlessly suave male. It could have been mined for more. Indeed the writing by director Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas is the weak point here. It also struck me that Bullock was very breathy in the early scenes for a cool-headed professional, but maybe it was the Clooney effect after all. However, when she finds herself entirely and perilously alone, a little heavy breathing is to be expected.

The very best thing about this movie is not the stars but the simulated experience of space where the life and death struggle takes place in a terrible awesome silence. How wonderful to watch extended sequences uncut. So immersive.

Stanley Kubrick gave us a Strauss Waltz to watch as space stations spun in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Cuaron gives us some country and western, until Stone asks Houston to switch it off, but it is the silence in the elemental setting that is so powerful as Stone and Kowalski tumble around like flotsam in a fathomless sea. Six hundred kilometres above earth, where there is zero oxygen and nothing to carry sound, is so brilliantly created it must be close to the real thing.

It is not surprising to hear that Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut. What boy who watched the first walk on the moon live on TV didn’t? Anyway, he soon became an aspiring film director and has brought us terrific films like Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of God. I don’t think that his latest film tops the human drama in either Moon or Apollo 13, both wonderful space adventures, but for sheer immersive visual pleasure Cuaron’s Gravity is really something.

3.5 stars