Gravity is a movie that has to be seen in cinemas and in 3D if one wishes to get the best possible experience. As an active disliker of the current 3D cinema experience, I was originally sceptical. The friends I saw it with insisted, and I am glad they did. Never before have I ever seen 3D used so effectively as a dramatic device. Gravity does a lot to lend credence to the format.
There is a reason the 3D is so effective. Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) composes every shot of Gravity with such care and intent that it becomes so much more immersive a film than one would expect a 3D movie to be. Previous high water mark Avatar used 3D as a way to give its richly imagined world a “reach out and touch it” immediacy. Cameron painted the screen with lush visuals for the purpose of transporting the viewer to another world. He didn’t really use his camera, his 3D, or his visuals to add to the film’s narrative richness.
In Gravity, Cuarón utilises the entirety of his frame to tell his story. Events happen in the background that cause ripples that affect what happens in the foreground in sometimes catastrophic ways. Background events drive characters to perform actions. This deliberate framing makes full use of the 3D format. The added depth increases the audience’s immersion in the scene, and it is incredibly powerful to see something small happen in the distance, only to have it grow in scale and menace as it moves towards Sandra Bullock’s character, and by extension, towards the audience, in the foreground.
I can’t help but feel the affect of huge chunks of broken machinery careening towards the camera would be dampened by a 2D screening.
The attention to visual story telling extends to the way the characters interact. There isn’t much in the way of character development, and the screenplay spends little time in establishing them before all hell breaks loose. However, characterisation is strengthened by the way the characters act more than by what they say. A particular scene involves George Clooney’s character attempting to calm another down as he tows them across space. The dialogue in this scene feels forced. Based purely on what is said, what is meant to be a poignant scene that sets up an entire character arc would feel flat. Being in a space suit, Clooney cannot directly look behind him, and instead gives a concerned glance into a mirror attached to his arm, while maintaining his cool tone of voice. It is a tiny moment, but one that breathes personality into a character the way the words they say could not.
Cuarón’s previous film, Children of Men, is the more thematically rich film, with a much more meaty narrative. It also boasted some very impressive sound design and cinematography. However, the technical intelligence on show in Children of Men is nothing compared to what is to be found in Gravity. Being freed from the constraints of terrestrial, practical film making, Cuarón orchestrates some of the most amazing long take shots I’ve ever seen. Additionally, Cuarón often frames the audience as part of the action. Often during some of the most dazzling moments, the film cuts to a first person point of view shot of Bullock’s character. It is us and not just Bullock trapped in an impossible situation. It is us fighting for life in an alien, incredibly hostile environment. And it is us who experience the majesty of the images Cuarón subjects us to. We are participants in the action rather than passive observers.
The sound design is equally impressive. Space in Gravity is soundless, and this soundlessness is played for maximum tension. Collisions occur silently in the background while characters remain oblivious, focusing on more immediate concerns. It is haunting to see such large scale destruction without hearing it. Positional audio is also incredibly well utilised. This is particularly noticeable in the film’s opening, when we see the earth and hear a voice in the rear right. The voice slowly moves towards the centre and then to the left as the setting of the film slowly drifts into view. It speaks to the incredible immersive quality of good sound design when you are given a sense of your place in the scene before seeing any of the principle players.
Cuarón played with diegetic and non-diegetic sound in Children of Men. An early series of scenes features the main character standing next to an explosion and a secondary character taunting him about a ringing in his ears. The very next scene makes it obvious to the viewer that ever since the explosion, a ringing simulating tinnitus was part of the soundscape of the movie, and this ringing continues for another couple of scenes. This experimentation continues in Gravity. Sound will often, and deliberately cut in and out, whether it is diegetic or not. During sections of Gravity, when a character is expected not to be able to hear anything, all sound, including the film’s score, drops out, only to reappear when the character is expected to be able to hear again. It’s another technique that Cuarón uses to not just frame his characters within the scene, but the audience.
Away from the technical side of things, the screenplay isn’t great, but is light and has enough character to provide some laughs and get the audience rooting for Gravity’s characters. The performances are amazing, and both Clooney and Bullock excel in their roles.
The film moves at a brisk pace and is over in under 90 minutes. It definitely does not overstay its welcome, a problem I seem to be noticing with more and more of its contemporaries. It is a movie that knows it has not earned 2 and a half hours, and so does not try to be 2 and a half hours long.
I found Gravity to be the most intelligently staged film I have seen in a long time. It’s not weighty in its themes, but is a show of pure film making talent. It is also a film that concerns itself with telling a story and ratcheting up tension above being scientifically accurate. While it’s depiction of a Kessler syndrome is chilling, the actions undertaken in the film are impossible given the orbits and locations of the places the characters visit in their journey towards salvation.
A suspension of disbelief is strongly advised.
I found it a case where the film was so well made and so exciting, that real life implausibility was of little concern. I found myself in a similar situation with a particular sequence in Jurassic Park. The sequence in question was staged with such skill at building tension and excitement, that the discrepancy in the height of the T-rex pit when the car is eventually pushed over the edge was inconsequential. There are times when one shouldn’t let fact get in the way of enjoying incredibly well made fiction.
SPOILERS FROM HERE ON IN
I do believe that something has been made of the fact that Bullock’s character is made to appear incompetent and reliant on the men in the movie to keep her alive. While this is true to an extent, it is moderated by context. Bullock’s character of Dr Stone is a civilian noted as mission specialist. She is on the mission because she has specialist understanding of the upgrades being done on Hubble. She was not an astronaut, she was not in the airforce, and she was given very minimal training (six months) in preparation for her mission. She is a medical doctor, a profession not generally known to be comprised of incompetent or unintelligent people. In fact, the entire mission required her to be there in space making very specific upgrades to Hubble, based on her research into medical technology.
Clooney’s character, on the other hand, is a seasoned Astronaut who has conducted a number of space walks. It is to be expected that if something were to go wrong, Clooney would be the one to remain calm, while Bullock would panic, having never been in that situation before.
Throughout the rest of the film, Bullock shows a level of resourcefulness and quick thinking that ultimately gets her back to earth in one piece. Had she been a truly incompetent character, she would not have been able to manage piloting a craft with controls labelled in Chinese. She would have died off before getting to that point.
On the other hand, there is the low oxygen hallucination scene where Clooney returns to magically explain to Bullock how to get out of her situation. This scene can be read as problematic, where even in death, the male character is required to move the action forward for the hopelessly disheartened female character. I will not begrudge anyone for viewing this seen as such. It was a point in the film, where just for a moment, Bullock was taken from being resourceful and quick thinking back to being reliant on a man. It was a bit jarring and undercuts her development into a powerful agent free from male intervention.
I tried rationalising this through the use of psychological schemas, but I was unhappy with the outcome of the exercise as it was still problematic. I shall explain the thought process for those interested.
Schema are mental frameworks used by individuals to reduce the amount of information the brain is required to process in day to day life. You can think of a schema as a script. You have a specific schema for ordering pizza, for example. You know what the transaction involves, and you act it out in accordance to the schema, or script, contained in your mind.
Applying this to the mission depicted in the movie, it is fair to say that Bullock’s character would develop a schema that had Clooney, as commander of the mission, being the source of information about what to do in emergencies. Thus, when low on oxygen, and with higher level cognitive functions presumably close to shutting down, her brain resorted to her schema related to this particular mission: New survival information will come from a commander as a commander is naturally more knowledgeable about what to do in this situation. This lead to the hallucination of Clooney that facilitated Bullock’s brain in making her aware that she herself knew of a solution to her current predicament. Ultimately, it was her own ingenuity that saved her life, but filtered through her schema that told her she should expect survival advice to come from a more experienced source.
All well and good until you realise Clooney is still a man! Her brain’s shorthand for the context of the mission involved a man being in a position of power over her, thus it is still a problematic scene.
So much for that fix, eh?