Veteran film critic & general British institution Mark Kermode once described 3D cinema as ‘phoney-baloney gimmickry’. To date there has been little evidence to contradict him. A raft of 2D animated & live action movies have been aggressively upgraded to 3D for dubious commercial reasons. Audiences have complained of headaches, blurred vision or not being able to see any difference.
It seems that no film can use 3D to enhance the narrative experience and this technology will be confined to the dustbin of cinema gimmick along with the double feature and scratch-and-sniff. Now director Alfonso Cuarón has created Gravity, a film which might just redeem the new format.
Gravity is a film that is designed for the big screen. After leaving the cinema I felt the impact of that movie would be lost on even the best HDTV/Blue-Ray home entertainment combo. I paid extra to enjoy it in IMAX and felt that even a traditional smaller cinema would lose something of the film’s visual flair.
There is plenty of spectacle in this film. There is spectacle in seeing the international space station ripped apart in a moment and there is spectacle in watching the continents on Earth slowly pass underneath the protagonists. However what is really impressive about the film’s visuals is Cuarón’s long sweeping camera shots that move around, above and below the subjects, as weightless as the astronauts the film focuses on.
The spectacle is also in Cuarón’s wide shots, full of detail, most of which would be lost on a screen any smaller than IMAX. Gravity is a big film, big in budget, big in scope and big in impact.
The plot can be written on the back of a postcard. Sandra Bullock is Ryan Stone, a medical expert who is currently installing a prototype medical scanner to the Huddle Space Telescope. She is assisted by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) a veteran astronaut on his last mission. When a Russian satellite is destroyed it creates a global domino effect of expanding space debris. These collide with Stone and Kowalski, destroying their shuttle and hurling them into space. The two must work together in the most inhospitable environment to survive and make it back to Earth.
Plot is not the focus of Cuarón’s hard-sci-fi disaster movie, instead this film is all about the visuals, mainly the 3D which is used to create a sense of depth. The 3D shows us how far from Earth the protagonists are, the scale of the international space station and the distance between objects in orbit. Cuarón creates a feeling of openness and emptiness greater than John Ford did in his classic westerns. Space is a frontier that opens onto nothing and where fate is cruel to people who venture there.
The 3D is also used sparingly, when it can be most effective. Only a few times during the film do objects fly out of the screen towards us, and these are during the movie’s most intense moments. To break up these spectacular scenes of orbital destruction, Cuarón uses long sweeping shots, moving around characters, in and out of their point of view and across space. He aptly moves from long shots to extreme close ups without an edit.
However great the 3D is, visuals alone cannot make a film great. Gravity has a great character and a great performance at its heart. The danger to Ryan feels very real and is subtly conveyed by Bullock’s stunning performance. A significant amount of the film is given over to her, alone in space, trying to survive. It is hard to act through extended close up shots without any other actor to bounce off but Bullock handles her character masterfully.
She creates a convincing arc for the character from nervous space virgin at the start, through the extreme terror of a helpless victim to commanding confidence by the end of the film. Truly this is a film to challenge an actor and Bullock delivers an Oscar-winning performance if ever there was one.
Ryan is a great character: she is played well, has a strong backstory, convincing character arc and genuine emotional responses. I rooted for her more than I have any other recent hero or heroine from a Hollywood blockbuster. In her simple terror and the everyday nature of her character, we as an audience can really relate to her. We are able to put ourselves in her position and see the action of Gravity through the character’s eyes.
The simple story perfectly facilitates this. When Ryan succeeds I felt like cheering and when things look bleak for her I felt a real lump in my throat. This was partly due to the seriousness of the film. Throughout I thought it was a real possibility that this film would not have a Hollywood ending and that Ryan might be left drifting alone and cold in space when the credits rolled.
A great film is made by combining impressive visual trickery with strong story and empathetic characters. Gravity is a movie that has all three. However, the visuals are the greatest achievement here; for the first time 3D was used to enhance the narrative experience and not just to provide a great visual experience. It perfectly conveys a sense of weightlessness in space as we watch screws or pieces of satellite debris float past.
Gravity is a movie that makes use of the entire film-maker’s tool box to create a visually spectacular and deeply emotional film. The 3D is amazing, but without the good characterisation and strong performances it would not be enough to support the film. Other directors of 3D movies should take a leaf out of Cuarón’s book. This is how it is done.