Monday, 2 December 2013

Gravity (2013)

Sci fi is always most effective when it says something about the human condition.  Whether it’s fear of new powerful technology (2001: A Space Odyssey; 1968, and Westworld; 1973), environmental concerns (Silent Running; 1972), or the fear of male rape (Alien; 1979).  In the case of Gravity, the themes explored are of human fortitude in extreme isolation, and how terrible circumstances can be overcome.  These are by no means unheard of situations as told in the true stories of Aron Ralston trapped alone in a Utah canyon in 127 hours (2010); Joe Simpson left for dead on a mountain in Patagonia (Touching the Void; 2003) or the Antarctic expedition of Ernest Shackleton as portrayed by Kenneth Branagh in the TV movie Shackleton (2002).  The fact that we can relate to Dr Ryan's predicament (less mainstream than hiking in the desert or climbing a mountain) I think is a testament to writer/director Alfonso Cuarón.

Of course the most striking aspect of the film are the visuals, and they are simply stunning.  The first shot, the one that lasts 20 minutes, is simply phenomenal.  There are some tremendous continuous scenes in Children of Men (2007), and also some clever camera work in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), but in Gravity, Cuarón’s vision is out of this world.  These extremely long takes I think really help the story.  In that first shot, Alfonso gives us the backdrop, introduces the principle characters, gives us the background to a potential problem, and then bang!  It happens, and we are spinning off into space.  The fact that it's all one shot, apart from being amazing, makes us feel like the director is holding our hand and guiding us slowly through an environment with which we are not completely familiar.  I think this makes the film far more accessible and coherent than it would if there were lots of fast edits; Gravity is far more elegant.

Needless to say Clooney is great, his suave persona is perfect for Matt Kowalski, the astronaut who stays calm and initially takes control of the situation.  Arguably one of the best achievements of Gravity is the discovery that Sandra Bullock can carry a film almost by herself.  Dr Ryan Stone is almost the opposite of Kowalski, nervous, initially unsure of anything outside her comfort zone and sometimes has trouble keeping her food down on a spacewalk.  We can all relate to this, and Bullock epitomises this unease brilliantly.  She slowly realises that she is capable of taking control of her situation, and while she isn’t ballsy like Ellen Ripley, she is determined enough to do what she has to.  I don’t claim to know all of Bullock’s roles, but I don’t think that she often gets to do anything this intense; except for perhaps Crash (2004), so I was very impressed with her here.

Gravity is proper edge of the seat stuff, there are few films that engross the viewer as much as this.  Certainly part of this success is due to the sound design and score.  Having helped edit music alongside Hans Zimmer for Batman Begins and Howard Shore for The Two Towers and Return of the King, we can assume that composer Steven Price knows a thing or two about film scores.  For Gravity, Price has demonstrated restraint, in the knowledge that less is more.  In the quiet moments in space, his music has an almost ethereal quality, full of wonder, reminiscent of James Horner’s score for Avatar.  As the action builds up so does the music, almost as a distorted heartbeat echoing that of Ryan, until rather than reaching a crescendo, the music drifts off into space again.

Ultimately, this story of human resolve and fortitude has a happy ending, as perhaps the more memorable stories often do.  Ryan has been through a terrible ordeal and comes out the other side with a new outlook on life.  Sandra Bullock is very good at conveying all these emotions; coupled with an amazing vision from Alfonso Cuarón and incredible, flawless special effects; Gravity is one of those films whose impact remains long after leaving the movie theatre. But, well, you know, that’s just, like, er, my opinion, man.