Monday, 11 November 2013

Movie Review: Gravity

‘Gravity’ is sure to be one of the most talked about films this year and perhaps for many more to come. Such fine acting and directing do not usually combine so brilliantly with technological advancements in the art of filmmaking as they do here, ‘Gravity’ is undeniably a milestone in the progression of visual effects but what makes it so remarkable is that its storytelling is every bit as revolutionary.

In the inhospitable landscape of space a disaster forces astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) to fight for her life.

In terms of casting ‘Gravity’ firmly relies on its two leads, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Yes other actors may appear briefly (such as Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control in Houston) but make no mistake about it, Clooney and especially Bullock drive the story almost totally by themselves. If you never valued Sandra Bullock as an actress then prepare to have your mind drastically changed as she gives what is easily the performance of her career, and what a performance it is. Bullock is on screen for almost every second of the film meaning she is the vessel for the audience to inhabit in this dire situation. Bullock’s sheer range in her portrayal is staggering at times as she cascades all human emotions in her character's frightened state. A particular highlight of her range occurs near the beginning of the film, after an unforeseen disaster (I’m trying my hardest to be vague) sends her spinning out into the darkness of space with no tether and no hope, for anyone who has ever entertained the idea of being stranded in space alone with no help and a dwindling supply of oxygen this sequence is beyond terrifying. However Bullock’s portrayal of Dr. Stone’s rising trauma with her situation is what makes it so memorable for me, her voice starts out as unnerved as she calls for help “Can you hear me? Do you copy!?”, the gut-wrenching empathy that I felt as a viewer whilst I watched her fall further and further into this black void was colossal, all the while desperation was growing more evident in her voice until she ended in a defeated whisper of a plea “Does anybody copy? Anybody? Please copy”.

As odd as it may seem with a performance as good as Sandra Bullock's, she doesn’t solely command the film as George Clooney is on scene-stealing form in his role as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski. Clooney injects his usual dose of effortless charm and likability into the role but the key to his portrayal here is what lies below the surface. Despite the relatively little focus put on his character George Clooney still manages to draw a lot out of him, so much so that I found him to be my favourite aspect of the story. Kowlaski is on his last mission with NASA, a sharp contrast to the fact that it is Dr. Stone’s inaugural outing, and so Kowalski’s skill at his job becomes vital to the survival of both himself and Dr. Stone once disaster strikes. Director Alfonso Cuarón clearly intends for Kowalski’s charm to compliment his level-headedness given the dire situation he is thrown into, so obviously Clooney is perfect at portraying this. Towards the end Clooney gets the opportunity to humanise Kowalski in one of the most pivotal scenes in ‘Gravity’, Clooney’s work here is exemplary and certainly among my favourites in the overall film.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney have incredible chemistry in 'Gravity'.

Spectacular is really the only word that can describe the effects on show in ‘Gravity’, the fact that they occur within an environment like space that is devoid of sound removes the distraction that noise sometimes exists as and instead allows you to fully take in the breath-taking splendour on display. The primary use for the effects is of course in the film’s impressive destruction set pieces where certain structures in space are assaulted by debris with the impact causing them to shatter into innumerable pieces that float through the vacuum in a dazzling fashion. I can say with confidence that these are some of the best effects of its kind that I’ve seen onscreen, it truly marks a clear advancement in realistic visual destruction in cinema.

Films in the “Thriller” genre are very rarely as true to their name as this film. ‘Gravity’ features a claustrophobic and anxiety-ridden tale that will endlessly captivate viewers, the opening sequence alone is enough to prove it. This is no ordinary beginning, it is a 15-minute long continuous take that depicts the unfolding of a utterly nightmarish situation supplemented by shrewdly effective technological supports such as the increasingly exasperated breath of Dr. Stone becoming more and more present in the soundtrack until it alone commands the audio.

‘Gravity’ features some utterly gorgeous cinematography. With its setting in space not far from Earth it offers a perfect place to capture some beautiful vistas of the planet. ‘Gravity’ delivers on this opportunity fantastically as it features striking visuals on a regular basis, I really cannot praise the film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki enough for his considerable work in this area. Having a story that is so basic in its premise but tremendously nuanced in its execution required an identical approach to the visual identity of the film, thankfully Cuarón had Lubezki to make ‘Gravity’ as beautiful to look at as it was to experience.

An example of Emmanuel Lubezki's stunning cinematography.

It is undeniable that this film enamoured me in a way that only a few others have this year, therefore when it comes to critiquing ‘Gravity’ I struggle to find the same inspiration as I do with my praise of it. That being said there were a few instances where the film fell slightly short of my unfairly high expectations of it. Towards the end of the story I was somewhat irked by the fact that the story had lost some of it’s detached, almost documentaryesque method of telling its story without succumbing to the usual fare of cinematic sappiness. During these moments, which take place near the end so there is indeed rational for them, I felt that the script in particular bordered too close to a sentimentality overload as Cuarón somewhat let go of his directorial identity in favour of a Spielbergian climax of romanticised optimism. The only other slight flaw I could find in this otherwise remarkable piece would be that I sometimes found Cuarón’s use of visual imagery to be a little too on-the-nose for my liking, one example involves Sandra Bullock’s character getting a much-needed reprieve from her tension-fraught predicament, in this scene Dr. Stone is supposed to have a feeling of relief pour over her as she seizes in her opportunity to recover. This scene shows the character beginning to relax and in her zero gravity state ends up in a position reminiscent of a foetus in the womb. My issue with this is the sheer falseness it exudes, the movements of Bullock as Dr. Stone are certainly not natural, she has quite obviously been explicitly directed to pose in this very position in order to illustrate the imagery of her sense of safety being akin to that of a child inside the womb. The imagery is not what irritates me, it is the clear manufacturing that to me feels unnecessarily forced to the degree that rather than inspiring thoughts of the welfare of the character it instead causes me to look behind the curtain at what Cuarón is attempting to make me feel.

Despite these slight setbacks (and they are slight) I have to applaud the unique approach Alfonso Cuarón has taken to filmmaking here. The way in which he allows the camera to float free through space and capture the action taking place is novel in its execution, this is most notable in the various occasions where the perspective of the camera feels like that of the audience when it adapts a first-person viewpoint, it is a smart way of conveying the desperation of Dr. Stone at times throughout the story as the audience can easily put themselves in her unenviable shoes. Cuarón’s penchant for extended takes is very evident in his films so there's no surprise that they show up in ‘Gravity’; they look extraordinary but unquestionably required rigorous preparation in order to get just right. It is precisely this meticulousness that illustrates Cuarón’s commitment to getting this story told in the correct way, in fact his commitment was so resilient that he took the approach that James Cameron took with ‘Avatar’ and waited for technology to advance to the point where it was possible for his story to be told the way he had envisioned.

At its core ‘Gravity’ is a masterfully told, gripping tale about human survival, now wrap all that in stunning visual effects and bafflingly gorgeous cinematography and you not only have what is easily one of the best films of 2013 so far, but one of the most original films in a quite a long while. As it stands, 'Gravity' is the defining film of 2013.

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