The last year or so has bought us a pleasantly higher number of films that need a big screen to do them justice. To many, 3D is still a gimmick of studios trying to extract more profits out of movies that don’t warrant it, but there seems also to be a renaissance of directors with a genuine love for sitting in the dark in front of three hundred square feet of vinyl plastic.
Sure there were big, world-stopping blockbusters, but the directors and artists behind only a select few (”Pacific Rim”, ”The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey”, ”Cloud Atlas”) managed to convey the sense of scope only a movie screen truly can.
The closest many of us will ever get to being in space is in a movie theatre with crisp sound, a crystal-clear picture and a brilliant director to wield it. And the closest anyone’s come to what we all imagine it’s like is Alfonso Cuaron. ”The Mexican” director did the famed ‘one for them’ in the Harry Potter series, then gave us the sublime adaptation of PD James’ ”Children of Men”. He didn’t do another one for them, and it’s been way too long since he did one for himself (and us).
For all the cinematic brilliance we saw in ”Children of Men” with the long single shots, wheeling camera and edge-of-seat momentum, Gravity makes it look like a novice on training wheels. The initial shot starts when we approach the Explorer, a space shuttle on a mission to repair the Hubble telescope. It ends with science officer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) spinning away, separated from the craft by a storm of satellite debris and trying not to panic.
Stone is trying to patch a faulty panle on the satellite. Flight commander Matt Kowalski (who’s just like we’d imagine George Clooney would be if he was an astronaut – all rakish charm and cheeky tall stories as he plays country music inside his suit) drives his powered propulsion unit to fly around the giant operation like a carefree kid running around a park. Their engineer Aningaaq (the voice of Orto Ignatiussen) is in the pod bay, laid out below them is the most immersive depiction of the Earth from orbit you’ve ever seen, and an ocean of black space dotted with stars surrounds them all.
It might be the 3D (which doesn’t seem to darken the picture) it might be the amazing work by Cuaron and his production designer and VFX crew, but you feel like you’re in space, more than you have in a very long time – ironically considering how many movies are set there.
The hail of destroyed satellite pieces decimates the shuttle, equipment and most of the crew, and Stone is decoupled from the hydraulic arm she’s been tethered to and left twirling away into the abyss surrounding her.
Veteran astronaut Kowalski raises her on the radio and her rescue is as precise as it is dramatic, but the Explorer is a wreck, and the pair has no choice but to try and make it to the International Space Station, miles away.
From there, fate piles one problem after another on top of the astronauts and it’s a story of human determination perfectly enmeshed with what feels like a documentary approach to the mechanics of life in space. We only see snippets of who Stone really is (even less so Kowalski) under the suit and training, but Bullock is no believable or fleshed out. It’s partly because she has a large portion of Gravity to herself, and partly because there’s no Hollywood histronics or melodrama even as we learn about the daughter she lost or the terror she feels having to propel herself across space, one misstep meaning she’ll just float away until she runs out of oxygen.
From the opening frame you’re gripped – if not for the nail-gnawing tension, then from some of the most stunning photography you’ve seen at the movies this year. Most surprising about the thrills is how Cuaron achieves them with so few of the quick cuts and hyperkinetic camera moves that are so in fashion. It’s amazing how slowly some of the action unfolds simply because of the expanse of the setting.
Occasionally we’re inside Stone or Kowalski’s helmets with them as they wheel leisurely (or violently) across space, but the jaw-dropping opening scene isn’t the only long shot. Equally powerful as any special effect is the scene where Stone – cut off from contact with the ground – picks up a ham radio operator somewhere below singing to a baby and it becomes her prayer for her own life. The camera doesn’t leave Bullock’s face for the whole scene (again, probably far shorter than it seems), but her terror and heartbreak is raw enough even without the beautiful image of a teardrop floating off her face towards you.
It would be interesting to see if the 3D and 2D versions differ – with no usual frame of reference like roads, cars, houses and the Earth we know down here, it’s hard to imagine the size of objects and the depth of field in the frame (even though Earth fills the screen like an embrace, it’s still 600km away). It might be the 3D, it might be Cuaron’s skill, but as debris races past, tearing holes and sending explosions of wreckage in every direction, it’s all clearly visible, burnished with the blinding white of the upper-atmospheric sun and as sharp as a razor.
If there’s any movie you could go and see just for the special effects forget the robots, monsters and superheroes of 2013, ”Gravity” is it. But Bullock and Clooney are the beating hearts at the centre of a very human story, and Cuaron gives them an incredible world to play in. As Stone herself says at a critical point – whether she lives or not, it will be a hell of a ride.