CONTAINS SPOILERS AND DIZZINESS
So far, 2013 hasn't been that great, cinema-wise. Certainly there've been a bunch of good movies and a dash of absolute corkers, but there's been a lot of mediocrity, stupidity and nonsense dragging the already low average down further. Happily, once in a while we'll get a film that cancels the descent, restores your faith in modern movies, and sends you out of the cinema grinning like a simpleton. And as a bonus, you'll have been perilously close to losing your lunch in the process.
Gravity is a literally dizzying science-fiction (emphasis on the science) two-hander: a gripping spectacle with a minimal cast, a thrilling exercise in suspense running just an hour and a half, a technical effects masterpiece with the simplest story imaginable. High in orbit over the Earth, astronauts working on the outside of the Hubble telescope are suddenly hit by debris from an exploded satellite and sent flying and soaring. With no gravity to stop them drifting into the void, with dwindling oxygen reserves and with their own shuttle beyond repair or salvage, can first-timer Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt (George Clooney) make it to the nearby Russian space station - before meeting up again with the lethal satellite debris on its next orbit?
Alfonso Cuaron's film begins with bold captions of how life in space is impossible, before a staggering single 15-minute shot of Bullock and Clooney (and their obviously doomed third wheel who doesn't even merit a close-up) whirling around in zero-gravity that quickly establishes the insanely hostile environment and dispels your ideas of up, down and falling. Yes, it's all CGI and green-screen, but it's a monumental FX sequence which is totally convincing: you'll pretty much believe they actually shot it in space. But the balance is perfectly struck between the effects and the human drama of survival against incalculable odds: the visuals don't drown the story, while the story wouldn't work without the pin-sharp detail and (at least to me) scientifically plausible imagery.
Much has been made of Cuaron supposedly having to defend his choice of Sandra Bullock, because there are apparently Hollywood dumbasses who didn't think the film could make any money with a female lead. Frankly they should all be made to wear those little hats with propellers on the top so they can be easily identified as drooling halfwits, and pointed and sneered at in public until they realise just how thuddingly stupid they are. The fact is, the character of Ryan is neither male nor female (save for the scene in which Ryan takes off the spacesuit, which is straight out of Barbarella), but human, and Bullock does a perfectly good job with it.
I loved Gravity. It's armrest-gripping in a way that so few movies manage: I've lost count of the number of supposedly exhilarating high-octane spectaculars that induced absolutely not a smudge of vertigo or motion sickness. I don't know whether the film works as well as it does in 2D: I usually go for the flat version wherever possible but in this instance I saw it in 3D because it was on the biggest screen available, and I was pleased to find I didn't mind the 3D glasses anywhere near as much as I have done in the past. Frankly the trade-off between the slight 3D light loss and the size of the image was a deal worth making (much of the film is set against darkness anyway because it's in outer space, and it also means that sunlight tends to be bright and harsh). It really needs to be viewed on the biggest screen you can get to, because it's going to end up flat and unspectacular on a TV screen, even a large one. You need it to envelop you, to fill your field of vision. One of the very, very best films of the year demands nothing less.