Yesterday I spent much of the day unsuccessfully trying to fix a dripping tap. It was awful. The fittings were corroded, it took me ages to get the stopcock to turn, the screw-thread on the cylinder of the thing was shot and no matter how many times I tried different washers the problem just kept getting worse. I was a jangled wreck by the time the decision was taken to give up on it and call the plumber in.
Later on though I went out to see the much-heralded Gravity, which turned out to be a big help in putting my problems with hardware, and indeed everything else, in perspective. This movie, in which Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play space-walking astronauts whose mission to repair components on the Hubble Space Telescope is seriously disrupted by a random fly-past of Russian space debris, is right and properly awesome in a way that I can’t remember seeing on screen since HAL 9000 refused to open the pod bay doors way back in the day. It takes place in a vast and implacably indifferent environment that’s rendered so well you’re made to feel as insignificant and vulnerable as one of the little nuts or bolts you occasionally glimpse drifting off into the infinite blackness and much of it plays out in daring near-silence and in unbroken and fiendishly complicated takes lasting minutes on end. It is however despite all the extraordinarily well designed and realised space stations and equipment and detailed views of the Earth not really a science fiction film. It’s more like the worst day at work ever, which just happens to have taken place in space as opposed to on an oil rig or at an airport or in an installation at the bottom of the sea.
I’m not going to go into much detail about what happens in this film because the thing is so immersive and gripping and thrilling and vivid that it would be like trying to describe a bungee jump or a rollercoaster ride that somehow managed to include sections in zero gravity. I will say that at ninety minutes it’s admirably streamlined and focused, with Clooney’s tiresome know-it-all wisecracking and an overly contrived tragic backstory for Bullock the only minor elements to distract you from the extreme and gruelling peril you find themselves in the midst of. There are sequences that are stunning for the degree with which you find yourself identifying with the astronauts’ fear and disorientation and there are moments that are still and quiet and beautiful. I’m not sure if it adds up to anything profound or revealing about the human spirit but the ingenuity, care and skill with which it’s been executed means that anyone planning a movie set in space is going to have aim high or risk looking hopelessly outmoded. Director Alfonso Cuarón is some kind of visionary, with an enormous facility for overcoming technical challenges (this is, apart from anything else, the first film I’ve seen since Avatar that really demands to be seen in 3D, and I can imagine it being absolutely overwhelming in an IMAX cinema). I wonder if he’s good with bathroom taps?