Sunday, November 10, 2013

Film Review: Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón) 2013


When rumours started flying that Sandra Bullock was starring in a sci-fi film that was gearing up to be one of the event films of 2013, it seemed logical to assume that it was going to be a big-budget adventure film with plenty of character clichés and genre conventions.  This is not an insult against Bullock, it’s just that she has always suited mainstream popcorn fodder and romantic comedies.  However, the rumours turn out to be true – this is the performance of a lifetime in a film that could dominate critical and popular Top-Ten Sci-Fi lists for years to come…

The film consists entirely of two astronauts undertaking space walks whilst repairing a space station and preparing to return to earth.  Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first job and is replacing Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is on his final mission.  As they are making the final preparations for the returning to Earth, they hear that there has been an accidental NORAD missile strike against Russia and that this has begun a chain reaction that throws all manner of space debris in their direction, which throws Stone out into deep space stranded on her own…

Gravity is essentially a two-person stage show set entirely in deep space (one day I hope that an ambitious production team translates it to the stage…).  There is little set-up and all of the action unfolds in and around the space stations that are already in orbit.  There are a few voices that communicate from Earth, but ultimately it is just the two of them up there, which makes this one of the most beautiful character studies ever committed to film.

Firstly, the 3D work is incredible.  Having shunned 3D presentations for the best part of a decade, it is becoming undeniably impressive in certain releases and has set the bar high for the future.  There is a moment late in the film where a single tear drop falls off of Stone’s face and moves towards the camera as the focus drops away from the inside of the spacecraft.  It is a remarkable sequence that uses the 3D technology to heighten the emotion of the scene instead of feeling like the usual ‘spectacle’ that 3D designers try to create.

Secondly, the performance from Bullock is absolutely heartbreaking.  Clooney simply calls in his best Clooney impression…nothing special there.  But I feel like I owe Sandra Bullock an apology for pigeonholing her for the best part of my life – I had written her off after Speed and The Net nearly 20 years ago.  She is in almost every single shot, and is having to combine honest, emotional terror with (onscreen) NASA professionalism in a way that seems realistic yet intimate.  If anyone is skeptical about the choice of casting…trust me, it works.

It seems obvious to even mention it, but the central metaphorical theme of a woman left to drift out in space is another overt reflection of American (and global) cultural sexism.  Imagine the same film with a male protagonist and it simply wouldn’t inspire the same chilling empathy.  There is a scene when Stone climbs out of her spacesuit and floats into the fetal position in zero gravity, which is a clear reference to Ripley in Alien, and forces the viewer to adopt a maternal/paternal viewpoint as we reflect on the relief that she has finally got temporary safety from the outside.  Again, trying to imagine a male character in a sci-fi curled into the fetal position is ludicrous – they would never show such signs of weakness. 

Revealing too much of the plot will obviously ruin the movie, but seeing that everyone that is going to watch this film knows that it is a disaster movie then it seems permissible to comment on the genesis of the crisis: the pesky Russians…

There is a wonderful coincidence in the timing of the release of this film: American supremacy (embodied onscreen in NASA) is under threat as America in reality is so inefficient that the government has recently had to shutdown. Ironic then that the crisis in this film is seemingly traceable to Russian incompetence – a cold war hangover at the core of the otherwise hyper modern narrative.  99% of the audience wouldn’t have batted an eye-lid had the reference to Russia been replaced with America, yet still the threat must come from abroad.

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