On Gravity

  • This piece was originally written for my old site, Oh What? Oh Jeez! As such, it may not have transferred over properly and some images and links might be broken (and, to a lesser extent, my writing from years ago is about 80% run-on sentences).

I know I’m devastatingly good looking but you gotta stop staring at me.

Matt Kowalski, Gravity

The other day, the wench and I went to see Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s latest science fiction survival thriller thing, in 3D at the cinema. It was easily one of the greatest cinemagoing experiences I’ve ever had and a thoroughly enjoyable film, as I shall now elaborate upon.

The film opened with a fifteen minute (at a guess) long single-shot scene in which the astronauts flew around their Space Shuttle, doing astronauty things and generally not getting #rekt by space debris. This may be the quickest I have ever been sold on 3D (although granted, the only other film I’ve seen in 3D that I can think of right now is Avatar), which had until now struck me as gimmicky and rather pointless, but this fantastic intro sequence, with tools floating free and the omnipresent Earth watching impassively in the background, was something to behold. It’s the closest I’m ever likely to get to actually going into space. Let’s ignore my breaking heart and move on.

After this fantastic intro, the film kept a consistent level of quality throughout. After a while, however, it seemed that Sandra Bullock’s character Dr Stone was either the single most comically clumsy person in the world (or off of it for that matter) or the Universe was trying to tell her something and she should probably have just given up. In one sequence, she arrived at a space station, nearly missing the handhold by the airlock. She pressed a button which opened the airlock door with such force that she was nearly thrown off. Entering the airlock, she sealed the door and waited for it to fill with oxygen as her breathing laboured, her suit full of CO2. Following this, she floats through the ship, past an open flame on an electrical panel, and begins doing astronaut things. Within moments, half the ship is ablaze and she rushes off to put it all out with a fire extinguisher, which immediately blasts her back into a wall, knocking her out briefly. I suppose this trope is more of an issue with survival films generally, and God knows I’ve seen it more obnoxiously.

As the quote at the top of the article may have given away, the biggest problem with this film was the atrocious dialogue. This mostly amounted to a stream of terrible forced banter between the astronauts, regardless of whatever harrowing events they were currently experiencing, although about ⅓ of the way through the film, Dr Stone finds herself cut off from all human contact and it becomes especially egregious. Kubrick had the right idea when he filled 2001: A Space Odyssey with vast tracts of silence and let the images do the talking, and there were a number of scenes in which it seemed Dr Stone would be better off clamming up and focusing on whatever complex space things she was doing, rather than nattering endlessly to herself. That said, I’m no astronaut, so maybe I just don’t understand it.

Ignoring that last revelation, I shall now talk about the scientific side of things as though I have any idea what I am talking about. Cuarón earns untold millions of Brownie points right out of the gate for not sticking sound in space. Inside ships, sure, but not space. The film’s many gorgeous, single-shot space scenes are scored solely by what the astronauts can hear in their suits; each other, muted impacts and the terribly-designed startling warning alarm for indicating when their O2 is low and they could calm down to conserve it. Beyond that, Cuarón deftly avoids the explosions in space issue whilst still having all manner of thing blow up spectacularly with some fascinatingly detailed shots of space stations being torn apart piece by piece as poor Dr Stone, cosmic punching bag of the Universe, clings on for dear life.

I loved the film, and it may easily be my favourite of 2013 (at least until I remember another film that came out this year that I preferred), and one of my favourite science fiction films ever. I don’t know if I would still think this if I hadn’t have viewed it in the cinema, or in 3D for that matter, but I did and would recommend that if anyone was wanting to see Gravity, to hurry up and do it there before it’s too late.

With that done, let’s broaden our scope.

A large part of the reason I adore Cuarón’s work so much is my insatiable lust for lengthy, elaborate single-shot scenes for reasons I don’t fully understand. Cuarón is very, very good at these, as evidenced in the stellar intro to Gravity, but also in one of his previous films: Children of Men. Beyond being an excellent film in general, the kind of grimy, dystopian setting and gritty documentary-esque camerawork you don’t see anywhere near enough of (I am reminded for some reason of Punishment Park, but the connection is extraordinarily tenuous), it contains a number of wonderful long-take scenes: an almost eight-minute one involves the characters escaping from their captors and making their way through a war-torn city, blood splattered over the camera, and ending up at a rebel-held hospital for a scene that I inexplicably don’t hate despite it’s seemingly insufferably maudlin nature; the other, and far better, one is an over four-minute one in which the protagonists’ car is ambushed on a country road, the camera swooping through the tight confines of the car thanks to a specially-made rig and capturing every moment. It’s easily one of my favourite scenes in all of filmdom.

No mention of my profound love for intricate single-shot scenes would be complete without a plug for Russian Ark, an over one and a half hour long film consisting of a single take, the camera flying through the vast Winter Palace and various points of Russian history, from Catherine the Great to the siege of Leningrad. Ignoring the fact that I’m a wee bit of a Slavaboo and was loving all of that stuff, Russian Ark is certainly one of my favourite films. Even if you hate Russia, Russians, everything they’ve ever done and anything they’ve ever made, watch it anyway. The artsily ambiguous dialogue from an inconsistently fourth wall-breaking guide contributes to a gloriously dreamlike feeling as you watch it, and the ending has stuck with me as another truly fantastic moment in cinema. Plus, you might get arthouse cred, and who doesn’t want that?

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