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Gravity

Gravity

The title of the flick could have been "We Really Don't Belong
Out Here, People."

dir: Alfonso Cuaron

2013

People have being saying this is one of the films of the year for a year before its release, and they’re still saying it now months after it’s been out.

Just give the Best Actress thingie to Sandra Bullock, already. No-one else is going to come close.

And just give the Best Director gong to Alfonso Cuaron, too. Nothing else anyone has released this year thus far is going to come close either. Even if Spielberg releases a flick with Meryl Streep playing Abraham Lincoln riding the whale Free Willy through a tornado that kills Nazis with lightning bolts coming out of its eyes, and it’s based on a true story, it’s not going to beat Cuaron. Take that to the bank, or the bookies, and bet your house on it. Or at least somebody else’s house.

I’m not saying it’s the best film of the year so far, I’m just saying anyone who’s seen this the proper way, on the biggest screen possible, in 3D, generally is blown away by it, and I’m no different from the masses myself. I’m as susceptible as the next slob to this stuff, sitting there in an ever-expanding war zone of wrappers and spilled popcorn, that I may or may not pick up and consume from the feculent floor as the whim might take me.

Cuaron has already made plenty of amazing films, my favourite of which thus far is Children of Men, which similarly had a propulsive nightmarish energy that drove me out of my mind on first viewing, and probably subsequent viewings. Gravity takes a lot of the stuff he and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have been learning over the years, applies $100 million dollars to their intentions, and comes up with something that looks this gobsmackingly amazing.

I have to admit that I’m fairly ignorant as to what a director directs and what a cinematographer cinematographs when they’re making something that’s 95% CGI. I can’t even tell you, beyond what it looks like we’re seeing, what we’re actually seeing. No idea how you make something like this. It reminds me of the fact that, a couple of weeks ago, a journalist called Carlos Perez at a press conference genuinely asked the director what it was like to make this film in space.

You’d have to think he was taking the piss, or that the goon hack was so taken in by the visuals that he thought they were ‘real’. Either way, it’s a testament to the wonderfulness of what they created here, or a testament to human stupidity. And guess which one wins out on our sacred planet most of the time.

From up there, though, 600 kilometres above the Earth, our petty concerns wouldn’t matter one jot to those brave men and women putting their lives at risk to further the reach of Science out into the universe. They have noble work to do, and they’re doing it in the most inhospitable environment known to humans except for the bottom of the ocean, the centre of the sun, or the middle of a black hole. It’s really, really cold, and really, really hot at other times. There’s nothing to breath. Even celebrities and Hollywood superstars aren’t safe out there, and they’re used to the nastiest paparazzi plagues and the greatest vitriol critics and anonymous internet jerks can supply.

Luckily, for us, we have two of the finest movie stars known to Americans to shepherd us through these troubled times. One (Clooney) plays a veteran astronaut on his final mission, who bores his co-workers, both in space and on the ground, with the same anecdotes of heartbreak, loss and hairy midgets that he’s been peddling since the seventies.

The other is a focussed but sad doctor-engineer-astronaut (Sandra Bullock) who’s really focussed on getting this one particular gadget to work. Their job, above and beyond just cruising around in a space shuttle, is to repair stuff on the Hubble telescope, our spyglass into the deepest reaches of the universe.

As if this isn’t all complicated enough. There are the tech problems, the need to secure all the tools they need to use so that they don’t disappear into the cosmos, the nausea of operating in a low-to-zero gravity environment, with your middle ear going crazy, and the knowledge that the slightest slip up or damage to your suit could doom you in seconds. Also, there’s the constant threat of Clooney to contend with.

We’re watching them, we’re watching the immense image of the quiet earth looming somehow behind and below them, and we’re well aware of how graceful yet tenuous all this seems. This is a science fiction film in the sense that we’re watching people doing stuff and defying death in space, but none of what we are watching is meant to be futuristic in any way, or beyond the possibility of what we have now. In fact, once we, through the protagonist, venture in to the cramped constructed spaces of space stations and rockets, there's a decidedly low-tech, almost retro feel. I mean, it's as high tech as high tech can be in our present reality, but it looks like the complete antithesis of the clean, streamlined, super iApple-like design we see in most sci-fi from the 90s onwards.

It's that 'reality' that grounds the flick, even amidst all the tension-filled, eye-popping tech-shattering that goes on. The adherence to the almost clumsy and cumbersome methods a contemporary astronaut would use to try to survive in the great emptiness make this feel more 'real', more relatable to us, the flightless lumps that we are.

Even though, even with all of this, it never seems very likely that our protagonists will survive their ordeal, at all. At. All. As in, they don't have a snowball's chance in hell, or an astronaut's chance of survival alone in space. The stakes get raised so high when everything starts going wrong, and keep getting astronomically more difficult through the Murphy's Law cascade of catastrophe, that you, like the protagonists, are convinced they're never going to make it.

Sandra Bullock usually gets a lot of flack for not being a particularly good actress who also possesses a whiny, high-pitched voice that could probably summon distant aquatic animals, like a dog whistle but for sea creatures. She also has an Academy Award to her name, which is even more galling. I don't particularly have a contradiction to that, or an opposing opinion in general, because I'm not particularly a fan of her work either or what she's done to her face through surgery and Botox. Woman, You’re Not Going to be a Girl, Soon, as Neil Diamond / Urge Overkill should have been singing back in the day. I understand the pressures faced by women in Hollywood, but it makes you look more unreal than the specialest of special effects exploding around you.

Could any other actor on the planet play the role as well if not better? Probably, but that’s not fair. For me to go down this route means I have to also say that, sure, a better reviewer that me could have written this review, someone like Stanley Kauffman, Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, A.O. Scott, Russell Brand, but hell, you’re stuck with me, so tough titties :)

Is she good in this role? Yes, she is, very good, better than good.

Is it a hard role to play? Well, because I don't know how much of it was her and how much was CGI, I can't really say. Most of the work the main characters put in here is essentially just voice work, with their faces digitally superimposed over the images of astronauts, let's be honest. But in the quieter scenes she conveys what she needs to convey, and she does it without being the usual whiny over-actor that I generally get to see.

My absolute favourite scene in the flick is also the quietest, and all it involves is Bullock's character, called Stone, floating in almost a foetal position after barely surviving intact when the hellish creations of Science bat her around like a continent-sized cat batting around a mouse-sized mouse. So beautiful, so touching, so possibly a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, and such a brief respite before the perfect storm of metal shards and fire that is to follow.

The most important thing, for me, is that I believed her. I believed in her peril, I believe that, despite some moments of profound despair, I believed how motivated she was to survive, and her willingness to do anything to get through. I totally believed her, and I didn’t at any stage think that the little asides she says to herself and backstory they gave her was in any way ‘false’.

I know it was Scriptwriting 101 in a lot of ways, but the makers of the flick completely acknowledge that they know we’re not going to care enough about the personal motivations of a tiny speck of a brilliant woman desperately trying to survive when satellites and space stations are exploding around her, to need volumes of characterisation. They do what they need to do to make her a human, someone human enough for us to care about, so that the question of her survival is one we’re at least partially invested in.

All that being said, the pure spectacle of the film is what we’re here to see and what we get. The sheer scale of what they commit to film, no matter how ‘artificial’ it might be, transcends a lot of complaints. Even I, with no background in physics, know that they cut a hell of a lot of corners with the actual physics of being in space, and, as my dear friend Carkus points out, something like the main danger of a debris field of satellite pieces travelling around at tens of thousands of kilometres an hour isn’t going to be visible to anyone, let alone the astronauts.

And while these various shuttles, space stations and other objects might be in orbit ‘near’ each other, they’re all going to be travelling at different speeds, and they’re going to have completely different orbits, going at completely different angles and completely different directions from each other.

But that’s all fine, because of how Stone gets into and out of the various lethal scrapes the universe serves up to her, and how propulsive, how terrifyingly dangerous it all looks.

I loved it, but I’m not going to give it the highest grade I reserve for masterpieces. It might be a great film, but there were a few things that bugged me. If ever a film needed a subtle or non-existent soundtrack, this was the one. When the film starts we’re told, via onscreen text, a few things about space, including the silence these people would be experiencing. It then blasts us with a soundtrack, as if to say, “sure, it’s silent, but we wouldn’t want older shmoes in the audience to fall asleep straight away, would we?”

Also, even though the flick puts me to sleep better than opium, 2001 was about a lot of things. It had themes, complexity, philosophical depth, as well as visuals that dazzled and awed audiences. In Gravity, working in space is really, really dangerous, and people want to survive really badly, and boy does it look amazing. Maybe the latter makes up for the lack of the former, but only time will tell if this flick is revered in fifty years time or even remembered the way Kubrik’s flick is revered and wanked on about endlessly.

8 times there’s no way Kubrik would have made a flick like this in this way, considering how much he hated people out of 10

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“No, no, no, Houston, don't be anxious. Anxiety is bad for the heart.” – spoken by the poor ‘other’ guy Sharrif, who dies first, and never gets mentioned in any of the reviews, poor bastard – Gravity.

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