Here’s where I stand on the current thirst for all things 3D. I don’t like it because I find it to be gimmicky and it distracts my attention away from other elements of a film that I would rather concentrate on. There. Now you know.
Maybe I ought to expand further. I was impressed by the very first scene in Avatar, a film widely held to be one of the pinnacles of 3D-cinema to date, but by the end of the film it was getting on my nerves, and I found myself looking off to the sides of the screen or above the screen to rest my eyes. Entering the cinema toilets after the film had ended I found a large number of children (bear with me here), nearly all of which were in the process of throwing up while their dads stood nearby, happy in the knowledge that little Johnny and his mates wouldn’t subsequently be barfing all over the family Volvo. Granted that sickfest could have been down to the masses of fizzy drinks and sweets they had presumably all consumed, but my suspicions about 3D had been aroused nonetheless.
A couple of years on, having watched a dozen or so films in 3D, I remain largely unconvinced. There were moments of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey that wowed me, but then I suspect had I watched it in 2D I’d have been equally impressed, just as I was with Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. It was the special effects and the sets that I enjoyed, not necessarily the 3D rendering itself. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus was probably the first film where the 3D actually impressed me throughout, partly because it felt a little toned down, and the film looked great as a result. In fact, for long periods of the movie I completely forgot that I was watching 3D at all, which was fine, but surely that isn’t the point.
Since then I’ve been patiently hoping and waiting for a film that uses 3D in an artistic fashion, where it feels as if it is a vital device in the telling of the story, rather than an excuse for various superheroes and other franchisees to throw things “out” towards the audience. There is mileage in the former, whereas using it in the latter way is the kind of faddish and cynical behaviour you would expect from major Hollywood studios. Since Prometheus I’ve sat through several films where the 3D has been an irritation to me, or a distraction*. You might think the simple solution is for me to quit moaning and just go and watch Film X in standard 2D instead, but it’s becoming increasingly harder to do so in some UK multiplexes. Certainly in my local one, anyway, which seems to be on a mission to wring every last pound out of all of its patrons. I am increasingly finding that there’s no 2D showing now at the rough time that I would like to watch a film; inevitably there will actually be more expensive 3D showings of the same film, though. It’s becoming an illusion of choice in the UK. (NB I have not seen Life of Pi or Hugo, two other films praised for their use of 3D.)
Anyway, both pre- and post-Prometheus, I have been wondering where the film was that successfully managed to mesh the 3D with all those other vital elements. The ones that sit so comfortably together…the script, the acting, the cinematography, the soundtrack, etc. The ones that contribute something worthwhile to the artistic whole, rather than nothing. I didn’t know it beforehand, but I had been waiting for Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s first film since his dystopian near-future thriller Children Of Men. Gravity feels like a step in the right direction, the film to convert the skeptics like myself. It’s the first film I’ve seen where I can truly say that seeing it in 2D – though presumably still an enjoyable experience – will detract from the overall experience.
As the trailers began I put on my 3-D glasses and found my body tensing slightly. Tensing! In a cinema! And this is something I’m actually paying (through the nose) to enjoy. The fact is I have become conditioned to equate 3-D with busy, loud, special effects-driven movies. Gravity is a special effects-driven movie, but one of the most surprising things is just how quiet and peaceful it is. Blockbuster filmmakers have largely lost the art of subtlety, but Cuarón is a breed apart. In the opening few minutes.there’s barely any noise at all, just some distant radio chatter taking place while we watch over the Earth from above; oddly it’s as comforting as slipping into a warm bath.
The story is set in space, where mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first shuttle mission, accompanied by a small crew which includes astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). During a routine spacewalk repair of the Hubble Telescope, Mission Control in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris, perhaps in a nod to his role in Apollo 13) warns of a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has caused a chain reaction that has sent debris hurtling through space. The crew are to abort immediately before a giant cloud of metal parts smashes them to smithereens.
Like all good disaster movies, the actual disaster itself occurs early in the film, and it is spectacular. The various trailers and short segments that have been available online for months to promote the movie contain a hefty portion of the best footage, unfortunately, but only the cinema screen can truly do it justice. Cuarón delivers an incredibly impressive sequence when the debris cloud first strikes and really puts you in the heart of the action, the camera often spinning around, seemingly out of control, in order to give Stone’s perspective and reflect the disorientation she is feeling. Earth repeatedly pops into her/our view and then, almost as suddenly, it is gone again. Another technique employed by Cuarón is to seamlessly switch from the inside of Stone’s helmet, giving her perspective, to the outside, which obviously gives her reaction to what is happening. This is so well executed the first time I saw it the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. The opening is around 17 minutes in length, appears (on screen at least) to be without cuts, and there’s a nice continuity between that and the final, climactic 454-second take at the end of Children Of Men.
The remainder of the running time is filled with Kowalski and Stone’s struggle for survival in that most unforgiving of (non) atmospheres. There are so many movies out there that conveniently dispense with the fact that space is a vacuum, and therefore no sound can be heard, that the relative quiet of Gravity actually comes as a surprise, and highlights the harshness of an environment that has seemed all too safe and unthreatening in many other space-set movies. Gravity is set in the present, and as such the technology at the astronauts’ disposal is prone to malfunction and is necessarily flimsy; we are reminded that man is still very much the fish out of water, here, the fledgling explorer rather than the master of comfortable space travel and exploration we so often see at the movies. The peril the astronauts are in looks and feels genuine, especially when Kowalski and Stone lose their radio contact with Earth.
Cuarón explores a few themes throughout the film, but the one that stands out the most is that of the cycle of death and rebirth. Cut off from the rest of humanity, these astronauts are constantly aware of their place in the great scheme of things, reminded by the giant globe they look down on just how insignificant they are. In one scene Stone races to get into the International Space Station via an airlock before her oxygen runs out. Upon entering, close to death, she drifts weightlessly into the foetal position, the capsule she has entered looking to all intents and purposes like a womb replete with umbilical cord. Stone tells Kowalski about the death of her young daughter at one point, and when she establishes radio contact with a Chinese man later on she can hear his newborn baby in the background. And it is no coincidence that Kowalski refers to the beauty of the sun as it illuminates the River Ganges. Religious symbolism features heavily, too: Stone wears a cross, finds Budai in an escape pod (albeit a plastic reproduction) and even a heavenly apparition finds time to visit.
The film is close in tone to downbeat sci-fi like Solaris (the Soderbergh remake, also starring Clooney), Silent Running and even the cold, depressing space of Alien. Its clearest nod is to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but where that film’s apes symbolically highlighted man’s conquering nature and destructive tendencies, Cuarón chooses to include a scene that suggests the importance of a different, earlier period of evolution: the first steps on land by the Ichthyostega. It’s worthy of comparison with Kubrick’s dramatic grandeur, and playfully hints that we are perhaps not quite as evolved as a species as we like to think. The vastness of space in this film reminds us of just how poorly equipped we currently are to explore it all.
That’s not to say this is a particularly deep film, though, but it is deep enough. If it’s thrills you’re after Gravity certainly doesn’t disappoint. Like the recently-released Captain Phillips, it is an edge-of-your-seat experience from the start to the end, and though there are calm periods in the film, the characters are in distress and seeking safety urgently throughout. Gravity is the one thing absent for much of the film, the one thing both Stone and Kowalski would presumably trade anything to experience once again, and their attempt to get back to Earth, it’s gravitational pull and its atmosphere is gripping.
While Clooney does Clooney here – calm, suave, flirtatious, cocksure, even when freely floating around in space with no apparent way of contacting anyone back home – Bullock is far more believable as the hyperventilating, panic-stricken scientist. This is arguably her finest role to date, and I’m a converted fan after many years of utter indifference. Having read that she was forced to sit in a giant mechanical rig for up to 10 hours a day for most of her shots, I have a great deal of admiration for this performance. It can’t have been an easy shoot, and she has earned those new mansions.
Clooney’s partly-jaded character seems a little predictable, even when events around him are at their craziest. The matey Kowalski shows no signs of stress after the initial smashing up of the Hubble Telescope and his ride back to Earth, as though he has seen it all before. Indeed he isn’t even that upset when finding out that the entire crew has been killed by the accident; instead he just keeps on making quips and listening to Hank Williams inside his helmet. When we find out it’s his last mission before retirement it’s a dead giveaway that some terrible fate awaits. Is he a man totally at peace with impending death or is the 1D characterisation a slight problem with the script? My suspicion is the latter. It’s disappointingly close to Danny Ocean In Space at times – you half expect him to have a tuxedo on underneath the space suit.
Clooney’s Clooneyism is a minor issue, overall. Cuarón has excelled by making a glorious film about space and – to an extent – our real, 21st Century attempts to boldly go where no man has gone before (or at least to spy on such areas using a giant telescope). It’s a visually stunning movie, and credit must go to the 3D designer / supervisor Chris Parks, visual effects designer Tim Webber, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Andy Nicholson. I hope that this benchmark will inspire more directors to think creatively about 3D and raise their game, rather than lazily rest on their laurels. The 3D is finally something that feels important here: as important as the script, as important as the music, as important as the acting. It is a contributing part of the whole, and if more films looked like this I certainly wouldn’t begrudge paying the extra few quid or losing a few more of the older screens. At the moment it’s the exception to the norm, but a very welcome one.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Jonás Cuarón, Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Running Time: 91 Minutes