There’s no direct spoilers in this review, but really, you shouldn’t read a thing about this movie until you’ve seen it; and you should see it. Really this review’s just for me, more so than my other ones. I need to see it again at least once to know for sure what I think.
♥♥♥♥• I’m quite surprised by how unanimous the praise has been for this movie (and so high that even without spoilers it can’t help but have dulled anticipation for it here in the UK as we’ve had to wait a few weeks to see it) because for me on first viewing there were far too many things that took me out of an otherwise breathtakingly visceral experience.
To start with the good (leaving out the obvious that can be read in a million other reviews - it’s visually masterful in the strongest sense of the word) I think my experience with this movie is best described as, I went in expecting Kubrick but I got Hitchcock. I avoided, as best I could, any information about the story (was slightly rumbled by discussion on last night’s BBC Film 2013 where they talked about Sandra Bullock’s character's backstory, which is revealed fairly early but I still won’t mention here) and I guess knowing Alfonso Cuarón’s other work (except Y Tu Mama Tambien which I seem to keep putting off) and being more fascinated by Kubrick than Hitchcock lately, plus of course the space connection to 2001, I guess that’s just what I hoped to see. This isn’t to say Kubrick wouldn’t be impressed by the technical side of this movie; but George Clooney and Sandra Bullock tug at the heartstrings a lot more than Keir Dullea and Gary Lockwood… (the movie tugs at the heartstrings in a more traditional manner than Hitchcock, too, but Cuarón may even trump De Palma as a successor to the Master of Suspense…)
The movie is only 91 minutes long which seems incredible considering how willing it is to take its time when it needs to. The story is told virtually in real time with so few cuts it’s almost a nod to Hitchcock’s extended take experimentation in Rope. This was almost the first thing that threatened to take me out of the movie - having seen the first major “incident” which formed the bulk of the movie’s trailer, there’s not a lot in the first half hour that I hadn’t anticipated: in fact, there’s a lot less. I’m not sure if this is a spoiler, but I imagined the movie was going to be about Bullock’s character drifting helplessly out into space and coming to terms with this fact while Clooney helped her through it over the radio (or something) but they come through this first incident relatively fine - it’s the shower of unfortunate incidents that follow that form an even wilder roller coaster of hope and despair than expected.
I hate to say it but (again, I’m gonna say, at least on this first viewing) I found some of these events slightly unnecessary and strange and, like I said, they took me out of a movie which, at its very best, completely pulled me in. We already have two marooned astronauts, one with intense inner conflict, having survived one barrage of space debris with a worse shower on the way - and, as previously stated, the movie’s only 91 minutes long. I’m not sure that the random fire that breaks out late in the movie is necessary or related to anything, and felt a little too much to me like, “hey look what fire looks like in space” (quite like it does on earth, actually). Likewise, the escape pod’s parachute getting caught up in the space station shortly thereafter. I realise they’re meant to add to the tension, but I was too distracted by the convenience of these plot contrivances to care; compared to the purer scenes, say, of Bullock trying to grab onto something, anything, as she approaches floating sanctuary a little too fast… There are other bizarre moments, too, that call to mind the most unlikely reference points - like the Wall-e style “fire extinguisher propulsion” and Homer-Simpson-in-nuclear-meltdown-style eenie-meanie-minie-moe button pushing; and an extremely odd comedic tone in places (“I hate space…”, and much of Clooney’s performance in general, though I realise this is deliberate).
I don’t know if these things will take me out of the movie as much on subsequent viewings - they’re certainly not as bad as the first time cut in Man of Steel for instance. The movie is so rich thematically I’ll likely find justification for it all in time. There again, some of the imagery - Bullock suspended in an air lock looking exactly like a baby in the womb, cables even mimicking the umbilical cord, being the stand out - though beautiful, struck me as maybe too laboured, so I don’t know.
I realise I sound like I was disappointed by the movie but I guess I’m just doing what I usually do - saying more of what I felt during the movie that differs from what other reviewers have said than what I feel has been said plenty. When this movie is great, it’s truly everything you’ve heard, and more. I found myself with tears on my face much earlier than I thought (just before Bullock relates her backstory to Clooney; just as you begin to sense her crushing isolation) and I don’t think I’ve come so close to physically clutching the seat in front of me in the cinema in my life. I could write a whole other review based on how well I felt the movie deals with gender too (in short, it never annoyed me in this regard - there was a minor Twitter storm over some silly article a while back suggesting the movie was anti-feminist and there were times I feared I might agree but it recovers completely) but I’ve already written far too much for a movie I’ve far from made my mind up about yet.