Sunday, 17 November 2013
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
After a month’s absence from the silver screen, I returned to catch Sandra Bullock spinning off into the abyss in Alfonso Cuarón’s intense space thriller Gravity, which chronicles the struggle of two astronauts to return home when their shuttle is damaged beyond repair by an unprecedented cascade of destructive space debris.
Though undeniably engaging and frequently action-packed, there is an understated atmosphere that comes from the focus on a small cast and their isolation. It’s not pure science-fiction, though fiction allows it to circumnavigate the criticism it has received for scientific inaccuracies. In the absence of any vast treatise on the destiny of humanity, Gravity becomes a contemporary space adventure that is both modern thriller and character drama.
Cuarón is the director of the celebrated Children of Men (2006) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), cementing his ability to work within different genres. He also displays preference for UK based productions: the ostensibly American affair (helmed by a pair of Hollywood veterans), was in fact shot in Britain.
The term ‘shot’ is used loosely here, because the real stars are the stunning visual effects, also created in London. What the production team have created is a live action film that is almost entirely and inconspicuously computer generated. Our heroes are inserted into the immersing void above a stunning blue pearl, as they navigate speeding debris, collapsing spacecraft and vast leagues of emptiness.
Cuarón strays into tried and tested Hollywood characterisation with his two leads, the newbie and the veteran. Similarly, the action settles itself in the typical action movie camp, demanding suspension of disbelief from the audience. It’s easy to lose count of the times someone miraculously grabs the very last railing before hurtling off to their doom, but for every time this happens, cinematic karma provides another situation when luck runs out, and their fate appears sealed.
George Clooney appears as Lt. Matt Kowalski, an old space dog enjoying his last spacewalk as he pipes country music through his suit. Clooney’s got the experience: this isn’t his first voyage to the stars, or the first time his ship’s gone down. However, the story really belongs to Bullock, who inhabits her character Dr. Ryan Stone (“my dad wanted a boy”) with emotional intensity.
Stone has none of Kowalski’s confidence, and is terrified when things go awry. We learn she has lost a young daughter, and since then retreated into her research. Cuarón revisits themes of futility explored in Children of Men as Stone must decide whether to resign herself to fate and be reunited with her daughter, or fight desperately for life. With little desire for self preservation, she teeters on the verge of accepting the former more than once.
The tool of her absolution is a symbolic rebirth, explicitly visualised when she removes her bulky spacesuit for the first time and drifts in a foetal position, the cable that tethered her to the ill-fated shuttle floating past as a suggestive umbilical cord. Dressed simply, her vulnerability at this point is reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien (1979).
Gravity is the latest exploration of how far visual technology has come since the pioneering Avatar (2009). While that film basked in the visual candy of alien flora and fauna, Gravity’s portrayal of the vacuum of space, and the perceived lack of a certain fundamental interaction, invites comparisons with other masterpieces of space on film.
Themes of rebirth and the use of long, uninterrupted shots owe a debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is ultimately wider in scope. Though elegance remains in Kubrick’s classically scored wide shots of docking spacecraft, Gravity ups the ante by dynamically moving the camera through these long sequences, swooping around characters and spacecraft to fully exploit the versatile digital environment. Composer Steven Price’s score meanwhile is haunting silence highlighted by thunderous crescendo. Long shots are interspersed with the view from Bullock’s perspective, emphasising disorientation as she spins out of control.
It’s hard to believe 2001 was released 45 years ago when its effects, created sans computer, still appear so realistic. Kubrick achieved weightlessness with strings, while cameras filming from unconventional directions turned the pendulum-like swing into weightless drifting in another axis. The iconic floating pen was achieved by fixing it to a transparent sheet of rotating plastic. It’s a mark of how far effects have come that multiple pens, along with a plethora of other equipment, frequently spin past Bullock as she clambers through space station interiors.
Apollo 13 (1995) eschewed special effects for the real thing, filming aboard NASA’s astronaut training aircraft, the famous “Vomit Comet” which completed hundreds of descents to give the film makers enough time to shoot (with around 25 seconds of weightlessness a trip). Incidentally, another link between the films sees (or hears) Apollo 13’s mission controller Ed Harris reprise his role as the voice of Houston at the start of Gravity.
Notably absent in Gravity are the Earth-based back stories and cutaways to Houston’s desperate attempts at rescue – exactly the kind of narrative that padded out Apollo 13. Cuarón reportedly worked hard to exclude this against the wishes of studio executives, preserving the sense of disconnection and simplicity. When communications go down early in the film, they are completely on their own.
One exception, which highlights rather than disrupts this, is Bullock’s connection with Earth as she scans the airwaves, hearing a non-English-speaking amateur radio enthusiast (revealed in accompanying media as a Greenlandic fisherman). He does not seem to understand the gravity of the situation (no pun intended), yet Bullock draws comfort from the sounds of life on Earth: laughter, a barking dog and most poignantly, the crying of a baby during what may be her last moments on this mortal coil. But I’m not going to spoil the ending.