Saturday, 9 November 2013


2013: A space odyssey 

Amid suggestions that film is being superseded by television as the superior visual form of art and entertainment, Gravity (directed by Alfonso Cuaron) is what cinema needed. Sure, the likes of Breaking ­Bad and The Wire offer deep character development and scope that the big screen simply doesn’t have the time to, but a film like this reminds us of the unique pleasures only the movie theatre can offer. Gravity is not a work that can be appreciated on a laptop screen, or a HD television, or even a poor quality cinema; it is a grand statement, a film that justifies the existence of cinema, and, above all, an utterly thrilling ride.  

Gravity’s most prominent cousin is 2001: A Space Odyssey, but whereas Kubrick’s timeless masterpiece is often described as operatic, Cuaron’s film is more of a ballet. Where the former film is as grandiose in its themes as it is in its length, Gravity is lighter on its feet and graceful, with a vastly simpler plot and shorter running time. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) an astronaut both on a space shuttle mission, before trouble arrives in the form of lose space debris that is hurtling towards them from afar. From here on in, proceedings essentially become a fight for survival as the pair is put through no end of terrifying ordeals that the deadly environment of space has to offer.

These ordeals are presented as beautifully as they are frightening. Like many of the best films, Gravity creates a unique universe that viewers immerse themselves in, and the universe here is stunning, particularly the view of earth that looms always in the background. Like the objects in the mise-en-scene, the camera floats and drifts around, sometimes adopting the point of view of one of the characters and rotating round and round. It may sound disorientating, but the effect is rather weightless and enthralling, and is quite unlike anything experienced before in the cinema. 

Anyone who saw Cuaron’s preceding film Children of Men will remember the thrilling way its best scenes were shot in single, super-long takes, and Gravity features a similar sparsity of cuts. On one level the technical ingenuity can be marvelled at, but, crucially, these special effects are not frivolous but instead intrinsically linked to the content of the film. By constantly moving in continuous takes, it is rendered perfectly clear that in space, there is no right way up, or up or down. The same goes for the 3D effects in the film; given the very three-dimensional environment the film is set in the form feels appropriate, while objects that fly just before your face are not gimmicks but backed up by poignancy and real beauty, like the tears that escape Ryan’s face into zero-gravity. 

Much has been written pointing out the occasional scientific flaw in the film’s action, but these details are relatively minor and don’t take away from the fact that Gravity is more believable thriller than fantastical sci-fi. In fact, another thing it shares with 2001 is a commitment to realism is space, with objects obeying the laws of zero gravity and making no noise when floating in the vacuum of space. The sounds we do hear, meanwhile, are brilliantly effective to, with eerie crescendos of sounds juxtaposed with deathly silence. 

Another apparent similarity with 2001 is a theme of birth. Images of Ryan coiled in a foetal position and that of wires that attach to the characters like umbilical cords, as well as the film’s finale, remind us of the space child that appears in the final shots of Kubrick’s film. But whereas the space child rounds off a film full of ideas that purports to be deeply philosophical, Gravity’s ideas are conceived only as subtexts, secondary in importance to its sensual thrills. Among these more weighty themes  appear to be religion and faith, of which some references are included  to be taken or left, while the choice to focus on Sandra Bullock’s character – something of an everywoman rather than an everyman – instead of George Clooney’s could be admirably read as a feminist statement, given the rarity of female leads. 

In short, Gravity fully merits the enormous hype it has received, and with universal adoration from the critics and fantastic performance at the box office, 2013’s best film is surely Gravity


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