It feels like we haven’t had a lot of truly great films so far this year, certainly not on the big-budget front. Most of our blockbusters are seeking to wow us visually by providing greater and greater amounts of CGI effects, or new ways to watch things be spectacularly destroyed. By the end of the summer, it’s easy to start feeling tired of it all. That’s not at all to say these films are necessarily bad, but for the most part they’re sticking to what they know is popular, without any desire to break ground or explore new possibilities to the cinematic art form with their vast budgets. I know I’m going to go and see Thor: The Dark World when it comes out in a few weeks but I do feel like I’ve seen something of its ilk every other week for the last few months.
But then… a film like Gravity comes along.
It’s extremely rare for a film to show you something you’ve genuinely never seen anything like before, Gravity achieves this within minutes.
I feel like it’s been years since I first heard of this film’s existence, and reading up on it, it was in production for almost half a decade. Writer/director Alfonso Cuarón’s last film, Children of Men came out seven years ago, it seems he’s been working on Gravity since then, requiring new technology to be invented to fully realise his vision in a manner similar to James Cameron’s Avatar (which will remain a technical landmark regardless of what you think of it). From the opening sequence alone I’d chance to say that the years of work were worth it on Cuarón’s part (and Cameron’s already sung its praises). Cuarón gave us one of the most remarkable single-take sequences in film in Children of Men, but that’s nothing on what he achieves here.
As Gravity fades in, we’re seeing the Earth from space, and that’s how it feels, like it was really filmed there. Slowly, from the edge of the screen, a spacecraft approaches us, it continues until we can see everything on it clearly. The camera moves around the three-dimensional space environment introducing us to the astronauts there in external space suits, chatting to each another as they work on the Hubble telescope, before the destruction of a nearby satellite causes them to immediately abort the mission. Throughout the whole sequence, which must be around 15 minutes or so, the fluidly moving camera never once noticeably cuts away. It takes us from incredibly wide shots to extreme close-ups, glacial movement to immediate, mortal danger. It is astonishing, and one of the very few times I’ve found myself realising that I had absolutely no idea how such a piece of cinema could have been created. It is, to use a shamelessly obvious pun, (literally) out of this world.
For such a technical marvel, the story couldn’t be simpler. The accident leaves two astronauts stranded in space, and they must find a way to survive and get out. That’s really about it, but the modest plot does not result in a case of style over substance; Gravity eases us into being fully invested in these characters without difficulty, simply through their naturalistic banter. Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a Mission Specialist in space for the first time, accompanying her is Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a seasoned astronaut on his final mission before retirement. Understandably, Stone is very nervous about being there, while the talkative Kowalski is far more confident, and wishing to break the untethered spacewalk time record.
The tale of space survival takes us from one breath-taking sequence to the next, remaining nail-bitingly tense, and at times flat-out terrifying. Cuarón doesn’t revert to a more traditional style following the opening, utilising many very lengthy free-moving camera shots that never fail to impress, but not afraid to cut quickly when required (he also served as film editor). The film’s pace never stutters.
Sandra Bullock has always been a very likeable film presence, but I wouldn’t have rated her as that great of an actress. No offence to her but the fact that she’s an Oscar winner while more deserving peers of hers like Julianne Moore and Naomi Watts aren’t is rather bothersome. Here, carrying the weight of the film on her shoulders, she more than delivers in a considerable career best performance that requires a great deal from her. Clooney isn’t doing anything new here, he’s playing up the charming charisma like he’s done many times before (you could probably call it the ‘George Clooney persona’), but there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s entirely suitable when playing a veteran astronaut. The two contrast and play off each other very effectively.
Gravity also marks the arrival of a major new talent in composer Steven Price. Price only has the Brit comedies Attack the Block and The World’s End to his name so far but his work here is sure to gain him international recognition. His beautiful score mixes a variety of techniques, including atmospheric strings, electronic ambience, lyric-free vocals, and more traditional, Zimmer-esque rousing build-ups to create a soundscape to perfectly accompany the film. Gravity employs the unusual but scientifically accurate technique of not having any sounds in space other than those the astronauts here, the wonderful score serves to substitute these in an involving way, preventing audience disconnection. The emotion one feels during the film’s thrilling climax is undoubtedly increased by the music.
There are inevitably a few nit-picks to be had with Gravity, the film is rich in symbolism but not too subtle about it, and some of the dialogue relating to its main themes is a little on-the-nose, plus it opens with an unnecessary text card informing the audience of the impossibility of life in space, these are all very slight objections though. (Doubtless, a backlash to Gravity’s universal praise is bound to appear, mind you)
The big issue going into Gravity for me personally was the 3D. All notices I’d read urged viewers to seek out 3D showings of the film, so I did. I’ve complained about 3D many times in the past, going as far to say that even if 2D tickets cost the same price I’d go for them. And what can I say? It certainly makes the strongest case for 3D since Avatar, the immersive environment of space and zero gravity space craft interiors undoubtedly lend themselves to the format. Plus the film’s tight running time (around 90 mins) prevented me from getting the usual headache that accompanies a 3D screening. I was admittedly impressed by many of the 3D shots in the film, but my central complaint remains, I’m not convinced that it’s ever necessary. I mean, if a film relies on 3D to work it can only be seen on 3D-compatable screens, if Gravity’s to have a life beyond its theatrical run (which it wholly deserves) it needs to work in 2D as well. I intend to see the film again in 2D before it’s out of cinemas and I feel confident that my enjoyment of the film won’t be hindered (I also preferred Avatar upon my second, 2D viewing).
Sometimes the best special effects are not ones that blow you away, but ones that you don’t even realise are special effects. Gravity manages to blend CGI created surroundings with practical sets and real actors seamlessly; I can only imagine the work that’s gone into producing the film’s awe-inspiring visuals. For all the praise I’ve showered on Gravity, I feel the film’s true star must be cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a frequent Cuarón collaborator who’s also Terrence Malick’s camera-wizard of choice. The shots that compose Gravity are game changing, and they never feel like they are done for self-indulgent reasons, they surely suit and enhance the film. And let’s finally remember, this is an A-list, $100 million film from a major US studio (Warner Bros.), and that could be a behind-the-scenes message of hope to cinephiles as resonant as this wondrous, dazzling film itself is to audiences.