The Pitch: Journey To The Surface Of The Earth.
The Review: Space. The final frontier, more so now than ever, with man’s fanciful dreams of space exploration feeling more of the pipe variety than ever as a lack of immediately achievable goals and a number of fatal accidents have served to put space travel well down the agenda. But despite the increasing reluctance to break out of our own atmosphere, the allure of space hasn’t diminished for most of mankind and for something so temptingly close – but for the unfortunate restrictions of gravitational pull – the thought of going into space remains a dream. Space is the same distance away as Edinburgh for me, but the addition of the third dimension will make it unlikely any of us will visit in my lifetime. It’s the nature of that difficulty which turns it into a nightmare, with a catalogue of thousands of problems waiting to spring onto astronauts at any moment, and Sandra Bullock seems to face most of them in what could be the most realistic depiction of space travel yet committed to film.
I can’t speak from personal experience, of course, but along with advances in space travel over the last fifty years have come advances in cinema projection as well. Film creatives have long been attempting to immerse audiences in their product and developments such as IMAX and 3D have brought audiences closer to the action on screen than ever before. It takes someone of true creativity to use those tools correctly, but Alfonso Cuaron is now attempting to push the boundaries of those tools further than ever before. A production that’s taken him and his team several years and involved the development of new techniques and methods has resulted in a film which will give most people the closest experience they will ever come to being in space. Some of Cuaron’s earlier films have been technical marvels, but Gravity genuinely feels like nothing seen before and shots such as the opening sequence – constructed to appear as a seventeen minute unbroken shot without an edit – will leave all but the most lacking in imagination struggling for breath. There is no debate to be had: Gravity is the most visually impressive film of the year.
Once you’ve adapted to the reality of what Cuaron’s presented, the immediate question becomes: is this enough? The story is simplicity itself: when veteran George Clooney and rookie Sandra Bullock are completing work on the Hubble telescope, they get word from ground control (Ed Harris) that a Russian satellite is breaking up and about to cover them in a shower of lethal debris. With no time to react, their shuttle is destroyed and Bullock and Clooney find themselves fighting for their very lives with limited resources and almost no hope of survival. And, er, that’s it. With a compact ninety minute running time and a certain amount of repetition in the storyline as the astronauts move from one return option to another, it’s not going to win any awards for complexity, but that’s not what Gravity’s about.
There’s a certain amount of myth-making at work, but Gravity can be seen as allegory for a spiritual rebirth. It’s interesting that advocates of the film fall into both pro- and anti-religious groups, and both interpretations can be feasibly read into Bullock’s journey. For those who put any weight into the seven stories theory that any film boils down to one of seven basic types, Gravity ticks not only the rebirth box but also the voyage and return element, with a journey and obstacles that would have been familiar to Odysseus had he been born two millennia later. That works to Gravity’s favour, as the grandeur of the imagery is supported, rather than inhibited, by the storytelling at work in the script from Cuaron and his son Jonas. There is the odd flourish, with the Cuarons dropping in subtle (and not so subtle) homages to a host of sci-fi classics, but they complement rather than detracting and Gravity stands up well in comparison with those lofty peers.
As bold and simple as the narrative is, it wouldn’t work if it weren’t grounded in performances and Cuaron had to find actors who could work within the strict technical limitations but also deliver the story in an engaging manner. While George Clooney is as effortlessly charismatic as ever, all of the script’s heavy lifting is done by Sandra Bullock. As one of a select band of actors to win both an Oscar and a Razzie, you might be forgiven for not being sure which Sandra Bullock’s going to turn up but she’s carried everything from romantic comedies to action movies over the years and you underestimate her at your peril. If Cuaron’s imagery draws you in, then Sandra Bullock is the beating heart of Gravity and her performance will resonate in your mind for just as long as the breathtaking space scenes. It might have taken him seven years to follow up on Children Of Men, but Gravity is truly worth the wait.
Why see it at the cinema: I’m struggling to think of a film which is more suited to the cinema screen that’s been released in the three and a half years since this blog started. It’s a film that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible to truly emphasise the sense of actually being in space. At the time of writing, the film’s been on general release in the UK for five weeks but is still showing fairly widely; catch it on the big screen before it falls out of orbit.
Why see it in 3D: There are two main problems with 3D: normal editing doesn’t give the eyes time to focus when shots are in 3D, and wearing sunglasses indoors diminishes the brightness of the image. Here, the mainly black background allows the brightness of the rest of the image to be ramped up and the long continuous takes allow your eyes to fully appreciate the 3D image. Seeing this in 3D is one of a handful of truly immersive 3D experiences I’ve had in the cinema (as good as Avatar and Life Of Pi) and Cuaron succeeds in making the viewer a participant in every shot. Essential.
What about the rating? Rated 12A for sustained moderate threat, disturbing images and strong language. It’s at the softer end of 12A apart from one rather graphic image showing the fate of a character who came off worse with the debris; as long as that doesn’t give the kiddies nightmares, this one should be reasonable to take children to.
My cinema experience: Unable to make it to an IMAX screening, I camped out in the third row at the Cineworld Bury St. Edmunds. Around two minutes in, the realism of the 3D and the positioning of the camera above earth looking down made me genuinely feel as if I was falling into the screen. If that’s not enough to convince you of the verisimilitude of Gravity’s space scenes, then the fact I was also dodging debris every time it came round hopefully will.
The Score: 10/10
The Review: Somewhere along the line, George Clooney became an American institution, but I’m still struggling to pinpoint the exact moment that it happened. It must have been after he was in ER (the second one; he was actually in two different series called ER, fact fans, one of which was a comedy), and definitely after he was in that Batman film. Admittedly he probably got into that because everyone was convinced he was a movie star; somewhere between Out Of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven it actually came true, but actually his screen career’s been patchy at best. His directorial efforts haven’t really been any different, and from the highs of Good Night, And Good Luck to The Leatherheads sinking without trace, a Clooney film is far from a sure thing. So it’s a great relief to report that The Ides Of March is actually a cracking thriller, but one of a very particular type.
But just as Clooney’s character seems practically perfect in every possible way, much of the success of Ides isn’t just Clooney’s skill in front of and behind the camera, it’s actually his leading man. For Clooney is almost a support player in his own movie, but his leading man seems physically incapable of appearing in a bad film these days, on a hot streak this year including Blue Valentine, Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love. Ryan Gosling is rapidly turning into the George Clooney of his generation, the next matinee idol and on a similar trajectory. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the film follows similar threads, Gosling’s idealistic campaigner working keenly in the shadow of Clooney’s virtuous liberal Senator. When Gosling gets a call from a rival campaigner (Paul Giamatti), curiosity gets the better of him and it sets in motion a chain of events that threaten to not only upturn his life, but also that of the fresh-faced intern (Evan Rachel Wood) who’s keen to get in his, erm, briefs.
That last reference would have worked better if Ides were a courtroom or legal thriller, but tonally it actually has a lot in common with some of the better examples of that genre from recent years, such as A Few Good Men or The Firm. (This might also suggest Gosling could be the next Tom Cruise rather than George Clooney, which should certainly be within his reach if he wants it.) It’s also a sign that The Ides Of March isn’t actually as deep as it thinks it is; it’s not quite paddling pool shallow, but the politics itself is an extreme form of liberal idealism that wouldn’t hold water in the real world, and the actual debate never really gets a look in, as it’s all about the Clooney campaign. But Clooney the director makes the greater contribution of the two Clooneys here, with heavy use of close-ups getting heavily into the drama and the pacing kept just right for the material.
It’s not to diminish Clooney the actor’s contribution; whenever he or Gosling is on screen, the effect is magnetic, and when the two are together the screen positively burns with charisma. It’s very much an actor’s movie, and there’s sterling support from the likes of Giamatti, Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Marisa Tomei. Those expecting an intricate political dissection of the current state of the Union will be disappointed; an early reference to Neville Chamberlain gives a feel of the more timeless themes of personal integrity and power that Clooney the writer and his partner Grant Heslov are keen to explore. A slightly muted reception in the US might be down to the two party system, and the fact that The Ides Of March wears its Democrat badge with pride (even if it does evoke some of the most well known Democrats of recent years for many of the wrong reasons), but if you’re looking for entertainment then there’s no need to beware this Ides Of March.
Why see it at the cinema: Flirting in tight close up, when the camera is fully in the faces of Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood, there’s something for everyone.
The Score: 8/10
Well, my three stage plan to take my movie obsession to the next level this summer hits stage 1 tomorrow, with my first ever IMAX double bill. Inception (my new movie of the year, as I couldn’t risk being spoiled any longer), followed by Toy Story 3. Later, in September I have a week off work where I intend to hit the Cambridge Film Festival hard, but in the middle will be the shiny, geek-infested glory that is sure to be Movie-Con III.
After the almost-debacle of getting a ticket I regaled you with in Chapter I, I thought it would then be all quiet until the day itself. However, never knowingly underobsessed and apparently not alone in that, I have been enjoying the community that has developed out of the thread on the Empire forum, where the struggle just to be there seems to have instilled a real sense of closeness among those lucky enough to have made the cut.