Skip to main content

I hate space.

Gravity
(2013)

(SPOILERS) The reason for the resurgence in the previously waning popularity of 3D, on the back of Gravity, is plain for all to see. Providing viewers are wearing the goggles, of course. It’s an expertly made, immersive experience that makes use of the added dimension in a manner not seen since Avatar. And there’s the added bonus that this is a far superior movie. Yet surprise was still registered when there was no accompanying attendance bump for Thor: The Dark World, a post-converted 3D-er. The message is clear; if you make it special, they will come. But that brings with it a caveat. Great as Gravity is, it’s still very much an exercise in technique and technology. You’ll be hard pressed to uncover the depths attributed to director (and co-writer) Alfonso Cuarón’s best work.


There’s still every reason to celebrate his achievement, however. The edge-of-the seat-set pieces he creates are first-rate, and the fluidity of his direction ensures that, even when you are conscious of what he is doing with the camera, you are not pulled out of the experience. From the opening shot, as a speck becomes a space shuttle and then, eventually, our protagonist Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) comes into view and then into close-up, there’s an unhindered attempt to create something that is both incredible to behold and has dramatic value. That shot informs the entire picture; this is a vast, unfathomably vast, environment. To be alone in it takes agoraphobia to new levels (agoraphobia and claustrophobia are fundamental, the latter identified with Stone both confined and protected within a space suit). At other times the camera seamlessly transitions from third person observation to first person point-of-view, and it never feels like a gimmick.


The unfortunate truth, however, is that it somewhat is. In Children of Men, Cuarón experimented with a virtuoso one-shot set piece leading into a bombing incident; it was much vaunted at the time, but it only ever felt like icing on a particularly nutritious cinematic cake. Here, the director attempts to consistently adopt the meticulous attention to visual construction that was Hitchcock’s byword. But Gravity is shorn of the Master of Suspense’s dark psychology and morbid wit. This is a disaster movie, plain and simple, and it never stands (floats) still long enough to allow the weight, awe and terror of Stone’s experience to sink in. For all the splendour of the vistas Cuarón conjures, the picture’s approach to character is inveterately Hollywood. Perhaps this shallowness is a consequence of collaborating on the script with son Jonás, a whippersnapperish 32 year-old. There’s nothing in the hackneyed psychology of Stone or George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski (the name makes me think of Monsters, Inc.) that would look out of place in, say, The Poseidon Adventure. The only such feature Gravity lacks is Ernest Borgnine.


Stone is a serious-minded, meticulous scientist who really doesn’t like being in space (you know, in the way Roy Scheider doesn’t like going near the water). Kowalski’s a charismatic space jockey (not of the Alien kind) whose easy confidence and bravado conceals nothing less than a thoroughly decent chap; that all-American hero poster boy type that doesn’t really exist. You couldn’t wish for a better guy to take care of you out in the inky blackness. And, because he’s embodied by George Clooney, you make excuses for his corny stories and cod-psychology. He’s so damn charming.


If ever there was a picture relying completely on star power to sustain its characters, it’s this one. Clooney just brushes down his classic Clooney performance. Sandy Buttocks has a role less tailored to her essential warmth, which is why she’s perfect casting. She may have been way down the list of picks for the female lead, but her likability shines through the clumsy dialogue and histrionics; you care what happens to her (I doubt that first choice Angelina Jolie would have been so engaging). Bullock’s career resurgence, teetering towards her sixth decade, has been highly impressive. The only concession to her age is that she stops short of the full Barbarella zero gravity striptease (I can’t believe that wasn’t in Cuarón’s mind, though). Amusing also that the plot manufactures a reason for the female lead to undergo a costume change midway through the proceedings, to a more slimline Russian number (and I know the suits for exteriors were CGI, but it’s the thought that counts).


When the picture eases on the throttle for long enough to focus on the characters, or rather Stone’s character (Paul Sharma’s Dasari is the only person we meet besides Stone and Kowalski, a voice applied to a CGI spacesuit who ends up with a whacking great hole in his face; such is the fate of those on the wrong end of ethnically diverse space missions), it grinds metal. Kowalski’s coaxing of background information from Stone, inevitably referencing a traumatic experience, is unnecessarily heavy-handed. Isn’t what she’s going through now tumultuous enough? Also lacking finesse are the repeated references to how quiet and beautiful it is up there; shut up and let us see/hear for ourselves. When Stone is left on her own she quickly descends into despair, until deciding that – just as Matt sagely advises during a fake-out dream sequence – she has something to live for. Do we really need that tired old cliché? It’s no more digestible for being hammered into a spectacularly well-made movie.


And this is a shame, because those moments where it all quietens down  offer a glimpse of the picture I frankly expected. Perhaps it was the difficult incubation period of Cuarón’s project, but I assumed Gravity was  intended not merely as technical challenge but also a conceptually difficult one. A human adrift alone in the awesome/fearsome majesty and silence of space, facing the end, and undergoing an unsurprisingly acute existential crisis. I don’t know how I expected Cuarón to pull that off, but that seemed to be the challenge. As it is, any expectation of imminent destruction is leadenly verbalised and Stone spends relatively little time alone or not in action. I wondered what Terence Malick’s Gravity would have been like; probably something closer to Tarkovsky’s Solaris (rather than Clooney’s concise remake). Cuaron trying for something of that meditative quality amid the thrills would have been nice, but he settles for the broadest of strokes (notably both Malick and Cuaron use the same cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki). Kubrick’s (much truncated in comparison) spacewalk in 2001 (as Bowman attempts to retrieve Poole and then get back aboard the Discovery One) achieves a much more lingering effect.


The consequence of there being nothing “deep” to talk about is that awesome adjectives for the scenery and suspense run out. There’s nothing much to the characters, so the conversation has quickly turned to the science; its accuracy and/or inexactitude. I don’t much care about how far away the International Space Station is from the Chinese space station, but even to my decidedly untrained eyes the escalation and mayhem quickly stray from science fact into the realm of the credulity-stretching. We’re not talking Michael Bay Armageddon levels, but that’s hardly the most helpful point of comparison. How many successive attacks of space debris can one unlucky astro-girl encounter? Stone is having a seriously bad day.


It was a neat touch to appropriate the Kessler Effect (the chain reaction idea in respect of the colliding satellites), but it has the side effect of diverting attention towards what kind of fucked up shit would be going down back on Earth when the majority of the communications net drops out (we never find out). Additionally, the catch-up waves of disaster it fosters translates into a slightly too convenient dramatic device. Don’t get me wrong; the carnage on inflicted on the ISS is a gripping encore of the opening. But, at that point, the manipulative structure starts to become foregrounded, which is never a good thing. So, by the time we arrive at Stone flailing about in space using a fire extinguisher to guide herself to the Chinese station, I was “Sure, that would work. After all, every other unlikely ruse has paid off”. Next thing they’ll be telling us they can send a man to the Moon. The fact that Cuarón couldn’t resist having yet another mishap befall Stone when she has finally splashed down to Earth, submerged beneath the seas, says it all. I was half expecting her to be circled by marauding sharks. Or a cliffhanger ending; Stone sets foot on dry land, only for dinosaurs to rear up in the distance.


That may be why I didn’t respond in disbelief to the movie’s one really goofy scene; the one where Clooney appears at the Sandy’s Soyuz door just as she’s given up on everything. He lets himself in and she miraculously survives the resultant depressurisation and spacey vacuum. Such improbability would have been fine by me, in a Dark Star kind of way. Of course Clooney could have survived. Maybe he could find a bit of flotsam and surf his way back to Earth on it (while I knew his was a supporting role, I was unsure if he snuffed it or merely absented himself for much of the proceedings).


The sombre core of Gravity will no doubt guarantee a whole raft of spoofs and skits over the months to come; it takes itself so very seriously but manages to mistake sensationalism for (ahem) gravitas at crucial moments. Nevertheless, Cuarón’s willingness to experiment has more than paid off with audiences and critics. If I have reservations over aspects of the picture, I still absolutely want to see more of this kind of event movie; one that approaches its subject matter from an invigoratingly different angle or perspective. Even when Cuarón & Son coast on standard-issue plot devices and tropes, they manage to deliver a film many times superior to standard multiplex fare.


****  

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…

Believe me, Mr Bond, I could shoot you from Stuttgart und still create ze proper effect.

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)
(SPOILERS) Some of the reactions to Spectre would have you believe it undoes all the “good” work cementing Daniel Craig’s incarnation of Bond in Skyfall. If you didn’t see that picture as the second coming of the franchise (I didn’t) your response to the latest may not be so harsh, despite its less successful choices (Blofeld among them). And it isn’t as if one step, forward two steps back are anything new in perceptions of the series (or indeed hugely divisive views on what even constitutes a decent Bond movie). After the raves greeting Goldeneye, Pierce Brosnan suffered a decidedly tepid response to his second outing, Tomorrow Never Dies, albeit it was less eviscerated than Craig’s sophomore Quantum of Solace. Tomorrow’s reputation disguises many strong points, although it has to be admitted that a Moore-era style finale and a floundering attempt to package in a halcyon villain aren’t among them.

The Bond series’ flirtations with contemporary relevance have a…

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.