In 1968, something came along that changed the sci-fi landscape. Not only science fiction, in fact, but film as a whole. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, as one would hope, was very much ahead of its time. It arrived a year after Planet of the Apes, and in the decade or two that followed the likes of Star Wars (1977), Ridley Scott’s duo of Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982) as well as The Terminator (1984) have influenced the genre, as well as what constitutes great sci-fi. Fast forward through the 15 years from 1995 to 2010 via Twelve Monkeys, The Matrix and Inception, and just three years later, on November 8th 2013, Gravity finally arrives in the UK.
Director Alfonso Cuaron is best-known for three very different films, though they are equally striking and impressive. Arguably the best Harry Potter installation (The Prisoner of Azkaban) was sandwiched between the sexually-charged coming-of-age road trip Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men, a sci-fi which – like many others – envisaged a dystopian future. With three releases in under six years this was Cuaron at his most prolific, and to prove this point he’s not directed a feature-length film in the seven years since. Until now.
Gravity does allude to the seminal sci-fi films of the past fifty years – 2001, Alien and so on – it even features a scene which demonstrates the difficulties (or trivialities, perhaps) of communication, an apparent nod to Solaris given that it’s a major theme of the Tarkovsky film. It also prompts us into remembering that Clooney was in the Soderbergh remake of Solaris – he’s been here before, but Bullock hasn’t – and this dynamic is replicated on-screen. They have been criticised as bland choices for the lead roles, but this little bit of history – alongside his recent films such as The Ides of March, Michael Clayton and Up in the Air which show off his ability to convince as respected figures – goes some way as to explaining Clooney’s casting.
Regardless, whilst the film’s premise appears to be similar to recent sci-fi gems Moon and Sunshine (i.e. exploration), we soon discover – when the mission goes awry, as the trailers suggest – that it’s actually about survival instincts, inner strength and faith. Combine this fight against external obstacles with a female protagonist (who is struggling rather than explicitly strong, in this instance) and the Alien comparisons are inevitable. Whilst it’s not a film that relies on twists and turns per se, the suspense, tension and atmosphere of the journey is an integral facet. Indeed, only last week I was talking about some of the biggest scares out there, and yet it’s Cuaron’s Gravity that has terrified me more in recent times than anything else I can think of. It’s a claustrophobic stare into the abyss, and this is down to the brilliant direction.
The tone of any film is a notoriously difficult concept to master, yet Cuaron not only creates such desperate and dire straits for the characters to exist in but maintains this consistent feel throughout the ninety minutes. Only Captain Phillips, also in cinemas currently, has triumphed in similar circumstances in recent times. And this is no coincidence: what’s perhaps most impressive about Gravity is that you can tell it’s made by somebody who knows exactly what he wants, and exactly how to get it. Cuaron is a rare breed; alongside the likes of Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips) and Steven Soderbergh (Behind the Candelabra), he is a director who has mastered his trade.
The audience is truly able to appreciate this extraordinary ability post-viewing since, in retrospect, the narrative is in fact very basic. It’s a simple and straightforward premise which has layers attached to it: themes, subtext, references, special effects, visuals, sound, atmosphere and more. And there’s no greater indication of these different strands coming together to create something much bigger than the individual parts than in the opening 30 minutes – act one – which is breathtaking. It’s a stunning introduction to one of the year’s most important films.
The only very minor disappointment for me then – although there are other small criticisms to be had (straightforward dialogue, explicit themes, etc.) – is that the film, only ever so slightly, begins to decay in its atmosphere, tension and excitement from this point onwards. It’s a harsh thing to say, but lovers of Gravity should take it as a backhanded compliment. Essentially, whilst the entire film is very, very good, the introductory sequence is so mightily impressive that you’re blown away with an hour to go. There could be comparisons made with The Place Beyond the Pines in that respect, although I think it seems somewhat unfair to criticise either for having the bravery to open bold and strong.
It’s difficult to emphasise just how good the visuals are, but Alfonso Cuaron manages to ground these images by presenting a truly haunting situation for the characters. Whilst the special effects threaten to steal the show, he harnesses them to stop the film entering the vacuous mess territory of Avatar. And speaking of which, Gravity is a film that probably has the best use of 3D to date too. There are films, like Hugo for instance, which are made intelligently with the 3D in mind (most likely because of their smart, cine-literate directors), and this is one of them, with the extra dimensions truly proving its worth.
What shouldn’t be dismissed is an oft-ignored aspect: in this film the sound (or lack of it) is extremely noticeable, in the best way possible. There are great contrasts between booming scores and other noises to an audio quick-cut of emptiness, or nothingness, mirroring the vast quantities of space. There are moments of total silence which somehow captures that bleak and nihilistic possibility of no return which the astronauts must prepare for. The idea of new horizons is met with equal force by the realisation of the danger, fear and unknown entities that they must deal with during their expedition. And so the religious/spiritual subtext, in that case, is no surprise: the actions of Bullock and Clooney are bringing themselves “closer to God” in more than one sense.
Having praised the sound, visuals, direction and pretty much everything else, there doesn’t seem like an awful lot left to say (there is). Cuaron is known, of course, for his long shots. Apparently they’re in this film – I’ve been told that that’s the case and I’m prepared to believe it – but the truth is that I can’t quite remember. I was mesmerised from start to finish. This isn’t a flawless film – it’s not perfect in every regard – but for the most part it not only flourishes but excels, and it outmanoeuvres all of its contemporary rivals. Gravity is a riveting and boundary-pushing piece of filmmaking from one of the most important but underused directors of our time.
Given the lack of seminal sci-fi films out there, it seems unfathomable that it would not become a classic in its own right. The only question left is just how highly it will be regarded. That one, dear readers, is over to you.