A visually extraordinary breakthrough in special effects cinema, Gravity is the latest film from Oscar-nominated director Alfonso Cuaron (Y Tu Mama Tambien; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; Children of Men). Essentially a survival movie set in outer space, the film sees a rookie astronaut and a veteran (played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney respectively) stranded in the great unknown after a devastating accident aboard their space shuttle. With Bullock's character Stone off-structure and drifting on her own, the film details her attempts to survive. Gravity's greatest accomplishments are arguably in the realms of effects and atmosphere: the film's depiction of space is so jaw-droppingly convincing that one could be forgiven for thinking it was actually shot there. The intensity ratchets up as Stone struggles to survive in an environment where simply reaching and grabbing for something becomes fraught with peril. In terms of plotting, the movie is fairly mechanical with a series of escalating crises interspersed with more reflective moments. But such a visceral experience is it that one forgives the film its flaws; first and foremost, it's a film that's designed to wash over and engulf the viewer. It's also one of the very few movies to have justified the much-maligned 3D format: with the film composed largely of long takes, the 3D actually gets a chance to complement and enhance the drama.
Critical to the film's success is the score by British composer Steven Price. Gravity is Price's third solo score, the second being 2013 Simon Pegg comedy The World's End, but he has amassed several years as an orchestrator and musical assistant for such esteemed composers as Howard Shore, Hans Zimmer and David Arnold. Gravity however is Price's first real shot at the big time. Originally hired as a sound designer by Cuaron, Price's work so impressed the director that he was eventually signed on as a composer.
Cuaron has stated that he intended to depict space as authentically as possible, and that means that the only sounds we hear (bar voices) occur within the context of the characters' hearing (for example, when the camera moves inside Stone's space-suit). It also means that the role of Price's score is doubly important, having to work on a dual level of music and sound design. As Price himself explains: 'Virtually everything we did was designed to morph between the electronic and the organic'. This isn't uncommon in film scores – one only need think of Angelo Badalamenti's score for many of David Lynch's movies (Mulholland Dr. especially). But within the context of Gravity, Price's work is all-encompassing – present in virtually every scene, it must be musical and non-musical almost at the same time, suggesting both the deadly, desolate, satellite-littered environment of space and the emotional journey of Stone's character.
Price pulls this enormously challenging task off with aplomb, all the more impressive when one considers that his solo compositional career is in its infancy. In purely musical terms, the challenging but not completely alienating score resembles a fusion of the brutal tones of Elliot Goldenthal crossed with Badalamenti's moody ambience and Mark Isham's more harmonic material. As befits the film, the music is fluid, ever-shifting, often engulfing the listener in harsh, seemingly unending dissonance before reaching a somewhat tranquil conclusion, expertly conveying the rhythm of chaos and calm on-screen.
The soundtrack begins, in "Above Earth", on a note that is alternately ethereal and ominous, with a solo voice gradually being overtaken by a frenzy of growling brass and electronics. The latter is a device used by Price to represent the threat of the orbiting space debris that lands Bullock's character Stone in danger. The end of the track is more soothing and beautiful, celebrating the majesty of space and the jaw-dropping beauty of Earth as seen from above. But it doesn't last long. The oppressive and menacing "Debris" brings back the textural growling as we see devastating damage caused to the characters' space shuttle in the film's white-knuckle opening sequence. It's extremely difficult music but Price's skill resides in the way that he layers aspects of the music on top of one another, altering the interaction of brass and electronics so that the sound becomes amorphous and flexible, as flexible in fact as the debris and characters flying around on-screen. Buried underneath (heavily at this stage) are the remnants of the opening vocals, representing the humanity that is threatened in this hostile environment.
"The Void" and "Atlantis" are somewhat quieter but no less dark, adding layers of echoing electronics to represent the frightening environment that Stone finds herself lost in. The lengthy "Don't Let Go", running an impressive 11 minutes, begins with relatively melodic material, effectively the main theme, as we learn about Stone's tragic past; the sampled strings and electronics carry with them an aura that is undeniably sad but compelling. When the vocals are again added, it becomes genuinely haunting. Gradually (and brilliantly), the warmth is stripped away as we're once again plunged into imminent danger. Price pans the musical effects from left to right so that we're once again fully immersed in the music, before letting rip in an uncomfortable yet propulsive action piece in which the wailing strings expertly capture the frantic attempts of the characters to grab onto anything.
The latter half of the track again reinstates the melodic material, genuinely moving and anguished this time with emphasis on strings to reinforce a sense of tragedy. "Airlock" continues in desolate yet beautiful fashion with quiet piano strains humanising the cold soundscape. It's something of a musical cliché but Price pulls it off very well. The glacial "ISS" is a soothing rendition of the main theme but "Fire" soon pulls the rug out from underneath again with the most conventionally exciting action piece of the score; the frantic strings running beneath the electronic groans carry a hint of Hans Zimmer's more abrasive material. "Parachute" reinstates the challenging action music from earlier in the score, this time with a slightly more expansive orchestral/choral undercurrent.
The subdued tracks "In the Blind" and "Aurora Borealis" are effectively a bridge between the darker part of the soundtrack and the redemptive, beautiful finale. "Aningaaq" (underscoring a scene where Stone picks up a radio transmission from an Inuit fisherman) introduces faint traces of hope through the fluttering electronics, piano and gentle string work. But the score really takes flight in the highly emotional trio of "Tiangong" "Shenzou" and "Soyuz", where the strings reach stunning heights, powerfully depicting Stone's quest to get home. When the vocals are added in their fullest fashion yet, it becomes especially gorgeous. The thrumming electronic undercurrent in "Shenzou" adds a propulsive sense of movement to the film's final scenes and the strings are also there to add a sense of human drama. The climactic "Gravity" finally allows the listener to breath, ending the score on a triumphant note in which the electronics, strings and choir form a harmonious whole.
Gravity is undoubtedly one of the most important and significant film music accomplishments of 2013. The soundtrack can hardly be described as an easy listen, or even one that's easy to return to, given its enormously complex relationship with the movie itself. In fact, viewing of the film is essential for appreciating the intricacy and brilliance of Steven Price's achievement. In the film, the score straddles the divide between music and sound, as essential a character as the visuals and acting. Divorced from the movie, it's a far more challenging prospect, with vast swathes of dark material eventually giving way to a beautiful finale. However, Price has both layered the music and structured the album in such a way that communicates the movie's emotional narrative perfectly, even if a great deal of what features might not be what the average listener considers as 'music'.
Ultimately, the soundtrack is an important artefact in demonstrating the all-important relationship between music and sound design, showing us that the boundaries between the two are often more fluid and flexible than it seems. Taken as a purely musical experience, Price is able to communicate both the terrifying emptiness of space and also Stone's journey towards personal redemption. Much like the movie itself, the soundtrack is visceral, uncomfortable but ultimately hopeful and uplifting, a vital component in ensuring the success of Alfonso Cuaron's vision. The album is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.