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
Sometimes in life, when things really matter, you can pinpoint in your memory the exact moment when they started. Your first day at a good school or university, the day you got your first pet, or the day you met your wife for the first time. In my case, I hadn’t been to the cinema for years, and I can still remember the first time I went back.
It was October 1994, and I was just starting my third year at Bath University. In the two years I’d lived there, I’d not really given cinema much of a thought. I was a complete sci-fi nerd, and rapidly becoming a Trekkie, but who wasn’t then at my age? Especially when the university student union was showing The Next Generation on a 200 inch projection TV at 5 p.m. every day.