Before publishing my reviews of a few of 2014’s blockbusters, I’ve decided to repost some reviews of American blockbusters released by HuaXia and China Film Group last year, which I had initially published on my now defunct Tumblr.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón / Written by Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón / Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney / Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki / Music by Steven Price / Production by Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films
Cruelly setting both its characters and audience adrift in space, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the sole survivors of an ill-fated space walk after a catastrophic hailstorm of space debris tears through their patch in the void. With their shuttle completely wrecked, the pair must make their way to the International Space Station in search of a lifeboat before the cloud of debris completes its orbit for a second round of devastation.
As the center of the film, Bullock carries an extraordinary weight and closely resembles an aged, more world-weary version of the plucky every-woman that made her everyone’s favourite bus passenger in Speed (1994). Opposite Bullock’s Dr Stone is George Clooney’s level-headed space veteran Matt Kowalski leading, joking and calming those around him with his velvety voice and bottomless charm. Matt is the closest thing that Dr Stone has to a guiding light up in the vacuum but it is Dr Stone herself that is the true hero of Gravity – not an American hero, like so many astronauts before her, but a poster child for the human spirit in all its glory and all its weakness. Bar the battlefields of war, there is no more likely a place for an action thriller to expound on this theme than space.
The script, which Cuarón wrote with his son, Jonás, reads like a checklist of reasons why no sane person would ever want to go into space. From debris circling the Earth at more than 100mph to the terror of being trapped in a burning space station to simply running out of fuel for the trip home; the rogues gallery of hazards is the framework around which this particular roller coaster ride is constructed. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s exquisitely judged “long takes” travel between the tiny, swirling spec of a body adrift in the void to the interior of a space suit to convey the immediacy of numerous threats to the characters’ lives without losing the grandiosity that makes 400km above Earth’s surface such an alluring setting.
The CG imagery of Earth from above is nothing short of breath taking and the use of the characters’ journey in and out of sunrise, sunset and the darkness between creates both great tension and moments of great beauty. What unfolds on screen is a stark and uplifting example of cinema as an immersive, experiential event, taking viewers on a journey that is physically rattling as it veers between wonderment and stomach-churning suspense (on more than one occasion I could feel my own deep-seated fear of drowning/suffocation playing out in my throat and my guts). Cuarón’s sense for tension and suspense, on such fine display in Children of Men (2006), never lets up and never quite allows the audience to rest easy in any presumption that there will be a happy ending. This finely tuned pacing is all the more essential for saving the film from its own weakest link: Bullock’s central emotional conflict, which, together with Steven Price’s needlessly bombastic, over-baked score, pulls Gravity up short of greatness.
Dr Stone is a woman with seemingly nothing left to live for since the untimely death of her daughter and as her chances of survival grow ever more improbable, her will to continue reaches breaking-point. Whilst it should not feel out of place and is, in many ways, an essential component of the film, the story of Dr Stone’s dead daughter feels shoe-horned in in a way that is more sentimental and heavy-handed than it is beneficial to the emotional conceit of the film’s title: that we will always be drawn, inexorably, back to Earth and back to life. When the triumphant Wail of Gaia, breaks out on the soundtrack, any remaining subtlety is lost entirely and the powerful final image is crushed by the numbing sense of emotional manipulation, that does a disservice to the exceptional quality of the preceding 90 minutes.
As an example of digital filmmaking – from the cameras used to shoot the film, through to the CG recreations of the space stations and Earth itself and the 3D projection methods necessary to screen it – Gravity is unparalleled, even by the 3D standard-bearer, Avatar (2009). At the 2013 Zurich Film Festival, Cuarón commented that he laments the state of 3D in modern Hollywood, where films are still being “up-converted” from 2D film formats and 3D is simply being used for marketing rather than an exciting new tool for artistic expression and audience immersion. That the zero gravity environment is perfectly suited to 3D spectacle is a no-brainer but Cuarón and Lubezki’s use of it here is so subtle for the most part, that one rather forgets its presence until the camera highlights a particular object for tension or a moment of emotional gravitas (some better played than others). Compared with other space-set 3D offerings, such as Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) and Prometheus (2012), Gravity stands as the better all round package, balancing visceral, immersive action with Prometheus’ exploratory lightness of touch in a way that one hopes can become the norm as 3D continues to develop as part of the filmmaker’s toolkit.
Gravity went on general release in China on 20th November 2013 and banked $70,680,000 of its $716,392,705 Worldwide gross (figures from Box Office Mojo).