Until relatively recently, Dublin had no IMAX cinemas. These days it has two, one in Cineworld, one in the Odeon at the Point. Hollywood releasing movies created with IMAX in mind is another relatively recent development—when the format was first introduced, it was filled with short novelty films, often in 3D. Well, full 3D IMAX films are here now, and Gravity is their standard bearer.
Spoilers below the cut, of course.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who was also responsible for the best of the Harry Potter movies, Gravity is like no other mainstream Hollywood movie. Resting entirely on the shoulders of its two stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and most heavily on the former, it’s science fiction stripped to the bone: a human encounter with the impossibility of life in space.
It’s also, at times, astonishingly beautiful, from the opening shot of an orbiting space shuttle to the closing shots of, well, that’s a spoiler too far. The story is far from complex, but it’s treated with due care and attention, and only the most scientifically finicky are likely to be knocked out of their suspension of disbelief by the various liberties that the writers take with near-Earth orbital mechanics. Perhaps the worst charge that could be levelled against the film is that the characters don’t exactly stretch the actors too much: Clooney and Bullock are both playing to established types here.
The 3D IMAX experience is clearly the most immersive way to experience Gravity. The IMAX screen is designed to take up most of your field of view, which it does nicely, but you’d better be seated in a decent position in the cinema. The vision-restricting, light-occluding 3D glasses don’t help either: if you look from one side of the screen to the other to catch a particular moment of action, be sure you don’t tilt your head in the process or you’ll skew the horizontal separation that the 3D effect relies on, resulting in a very blurred view.
The use of 3D and the massive IMAX screen is a mixed blessing for Gravity, a film that alternately seeks to convey the noiseless expanses of space and the noisy, cramped conditions that protect the astronauts, in the form of their space suits and the tin cans they rely on to take them there and back. Cuaron orchestrates some beautiful transitions from one to the other, but while the 3D effect works in the cramped spaces, it seems to add much less to the majesty of space
Another thing to note about the Gravity IMAX experience is the noise. The silence of space itself is emphasised, replaced by communications chatter and the sound of breath within space suits. The third leg of the audio comes in the form of the soundtrack, which is, at times, teeth-rattlingly loud. Cuaron takes a leaf from the 2001 book and seeks to stun the audience not only with imagery but also with audio, those transitions from utter silence to blaring music being central to that effort.
Tempting though it may be, the 2001 comparison is a misleading one. Both films make nods in the direction of hard science fiction and concern themselves with man’s exploration of space, but they’re coming at it from opposite ends of the first space age.* For all its clinical, Kubrickian polish, 2001 is an optimistic film, about the wonders that await humanity on its journey to the stars. Gravity is one in which the bounds of earth are barely escaped and the few humans that make it there are dealing with the debris of bad decisions and short sightedness.
Although Gravity is an amazing technical achievement, its optimism is bounded by Sandra Bullock’s role as a woman fighting to survive against the impossibility of life in space. It will stun and awe you, and perhaps impress upon you the qualities of those men and women who still venture beyond the bounds of the Earth. If it fails to inspire as the best science fiction can, then that’s not a flaw, it’s simply the result of a straightforward story being told with the best materials possible.
*Yes, there will be a second one. I’m not predicting when though.