Situation Grave and Rather Serious

Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s orbital two-hander, finally opens this weekend in the UK. Fiona Pleasance reassures us that it’s been worth the wait.

Shit, I think I left the iron on.

Gravity opens in Britain this week, dragging a veritable comet’s tail of plaudits, commentary and record box-office behind it.  In one of the regular quirks of global film distribution, the UK and Ireland are among the last countries in the world to receive the movie, just beating Finland, Peru, Venezuela and Japan to it.  How in the world any moderately clued-in British filmgoer can be expected to come to the movie relatively fresh is anyone’s guess.

For low-profile indie pictures, this state of affairs doesn’t normally present a problem, positive reviews from the States serving mostly to whet home grown filmgoers’ appetites.  But Gravity is a different beast.  Big of budget, state-of-the-art technologically, heavy with star power and, above all, reliant on plot machinations for the escalation of suspense, “spoiling” in this instance actually does threaten to do what it says on the tin.

Fortunately, the film itself is so well-made and so very, very exciting that most viewers should be carried along regardless of whether or not they know what’s coming.  Indeed, arguably, knowing what’s coming makes the beginning of the film – a very long and initially very calm shot of the Space Shuttle suspended before a luminous Earth – more tense than it really has any right to be.  It is fairly rare that the act of watching a film is so gripping that it almost provokes a physical response, but Gravity achieves this.  Experiencing it in the cinema, the bigger the screen and the more bells and whistles the better (3D and Dolby Atmos for preference), is a bit like taking a 90 minute rollercoaster ride.

Much has been written about the ground-breaking digital technology used to create the movie.  The concept of the film was so advanced that Cuarón, who wrote the screenplay with his son Jonás in the late 2000s, was advised to wait with filming until technology caught up with his vision.  Even after Gravity was in the can, its release was delayed by almost one further year to allow for more work on the CGI.  What’s interesting is not just the special effects per se, but the fact that they are being used to create a world firmly rooted in reality.  In a time when ever more elaborate fantasy and sci-fi worlds are being created digitally it’s almost a relief to stay in our own, recognisable universe, even if it’s a part very few of us will ever experience personally.  The movie takes the pictures we’ve all seen, from Earthrise onwards, and paints them on a vast canvas, flawlessly.

Given all of this, it’s hardly surprising that Gravity‘s narrative is stripped down and rather conventional.  Generally, in Hollywood, the more innovative the technology, the more traditional the plot.  Think of The Jazz Singer‘s hackneyed melodrama, cliché-ridden even by the standards of 1927; the slow-moving, self-consciously “epic” grandeur of The Robe, the first film released in Cinemascope; or the breathtaking stereoscopic visuals of Avatar, roped to a narrative formula that was about a century old.  What is surprising is how effective all those classic old Hollywood narrative hooks can still be , even in space-age dress.  Goal-oriented protagonist?  Check.  Creation of suspense through use of deadlines and last-minute rescues?  Check.  Some really big themes – religion, evolution, death and rebirth – why, let’s go the whole hog and make a Hero’s Journey out of it!  Check, check, check.  Strange, then, that Gravity rarely feels manipulative, and of the four films I just mentioned, it’s the only one I’d want to sit through again.  Concentration on the relatively straightforward plot serves to make the film more effective, not less.

Much of the credit for Gravity‘s success is due to its stars, of course.  George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are two of the most likeable actors working today, and Clooney’s persona is a perfect fit with that of the seen-it-all veteran astronaut he plays.  Bullock’s performance is remarkable.  She manages to cover her essential amiability in a wholly convincing layer of surliness, with a hefty pinch of underlying sadness, yet remains sympathetic all the while.  It is even more impressive given the circumstances of the shoot, where she was strapped into a box, alone, for hours at a time.

And of course, Gravity is very much a director’s movie, written and helmed by Cuarón working together with several long-term collaborators, notably cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  While I wonder if some of the publicity around the film has been pushing the Auteur angle a little too strongly – it’s still a studio picture, after all – there’s no denying that Cuarón is one of the more interesting directors to come up in Hollywood over the last few years, as shown by his entry to the Harry Potter franchise, The Prisoner of Azkaban, clearly the best of the bunch (while being the one which earned least at the box office; go figure).  At any rate, the director’s famous use of long takes throughout his career, particularly in 2006’s Children of Men, reaches a sort of logical conclusion here, making Gravity one of those times when directorial style and subject are in perfect sync.

So yes, even if you’ve been spoiled beyond belief, even if you think you know everything there possibly is to know about Gravity, you should probably still go and see it.  Because, fortunately, sometimes movies come along which remind us just why the experience of cinema itself – big subjects, big sound, big screen – is still like nothing else on earth.

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