JAMES A. GEORGE ON GRAVITY, FILM OF THE YEAR?
“Of the Year” is used flippantly as winter approaches, be it books, music or film, and Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has harboured most of the “film” prefix usage. While this is clearly false and smart marketing, one even more surprising statement widely attached to this film has turned out to be true: it has to be seen in 3D! Last year, Ang Lee’s Life of Pi dabbled with successful 3D projection by composing steady images with careful editing and composed pacing and focusing. In my review of this film for this blog I pointed out that the change in the film’s aspect ratio allowed for startling moments of “pop-out” effects that were genuinely effective in the way that shrill, loud violins in horror movies don’t cause genuine alarm. But on the whole the 3D was just, there. An add-on that worked sometimes but also suffered due to the inherent light loss from stereoscopic projection and wearing clumsy dark sunglasses. Werner Herzog’s documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams held the crown as the best 3D film, but a lot of shots were purposely flat as to emphasise the ancient cave drawers use of natures curves to form shape, and thus the 2D version was not as good as it may have been if regular cameras were the focus. So while visually and technologically Gravity has really blown Pi’s tiger out of the water, and wiped the millennia old floor with Forgotten Dreams, the narrative content of Cuaron’s latest shines as bright as a matchstick in an eclipse.
This is an amazing feat in the craft of filmmaking. This is as close to space as most of us will get, and for 90 minutes the sensation is probably somewhat accurate. We float, with no up and no down, no sound as terrific explosions occur metres away (although the consistency of general sound is muddled; sometimes absent, sometimes audible noise). And this is precisely where the film works, when we associate ourselves with our on screen avatar, Sandra Bullock. I don’t remember her character’s name and I don’t care to look it up, she is an empty character with occasional flourishes of sentimentality. We are with her not to understand her, or see her grow, we are with her to survive! To emphasise, this is not a novelty film, but the comparison to a theme park ride or paint-balling is kind of an apt one: the idea of danger without any reality of it. And it works perfectly, except when the fourth wall is broken, such as when water droplets splash on the screen and the audience is given a jolting reminder that “it’s just a film!” A very odd and harmful decision I feel.
Some critics are mislabelling the film as “intimate”, “profound” of having a “heart and soul”. Some have called it existential… These sorts of reviews say a lot more about film criticism than the film itself. The discussion becomes a stalemate of opinion in which no one wants to stand out and give the film anything less than the full five stars. But if ham-fisted representations of a grown woman curling up with a wire beside her, mirroring a foetus and umbilical cord, is considered high art, I think myself and the many I’ve discussed the film with are not on the same wavelength as said critics. It’s a four star film in the cinema, and a strong three star film once it arrives on DVD. It will blow your mind in 3D, especially IMAX 3D, and disappoint on a television screen, so if you take film seriously I cannot urge you enough to go and catch it in a cinema, as I’m not sure a film like this will happen again. I can’t imagine Alfonso Cuaron, the man that directed the phenomenal Children of Men, will really want to swap story for bullet point plot again.
I hope Gravity wins several awards for its visual effects departments, maybe even an acknowledgement for sound design. But if the Oscars repeat the error of mistaking special effects for cinematography (see Life of Pi at last year’s Oscars), even though Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the finest cinematographers working in Hollywood now, or give the director award to, a master filmmaker, sure, but in this case a director of robots rather than people, I vow not to watch until they invent a new category called the “Christopher Doyle award” and present him with an award every year – just to keep things in balance.
I cannot commend this film enough as a film, it’s crafted like the finest Egyptian tomb, staged exquisitely, and still comes across as a bold, refreshing, thrilling achievement. Go in expecting a wonderful popcorn movie, and you shall not be disappointed.