New in cinemas – 8th November 2013
“Either way, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.“
We’re almost four years removed from Avatar, a milestone in visual effects, one that we all watched in awe for the duration of its three-hour sprawl. That was supposed to be it – the sheer beauty of its landscapes and animation made it a glorious culmination of technological cinema, appearing in the last few weeks of a decade in which so many were striving (and failing) to outdo The Matrix. Nobody really had any discussions about who might create its successor; maybe nobody thought it was possible, at least not for a long while. Avatar has stood alone at the top of its own immaculately constructed mountain ever since.
And even if there was any notion that the spectacle of James Cameron’s multi-billion-dollar money maker would be at least matched within half a decade, chances are that anyone had Alfonso Cuarón pegged for the task were slim. Granted he was in the director’s chair for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but that franchise never produced the CGI typhoons that were originally expected of it. And while Cuarón’s latest film Gravity is ferociously turning IMAX theaters into vacuums all across the west, it has more in common with the gritty, virtuosic Children of Men than Harry Potter 3.
Children was so acrobatic with its cinematography that it largely masked its flaws and at least appeared to be a film approaching perfection. It made chaotic, single take action sequences seem like routine groundwork, simultaneously immersive and effortless. And as Gravity opens on a slow tracking shot of the Earth from outer space, in floats a space shuttle on which a team of astronauts are conducting repairs. This first shot, all apparently in zero gravity with the camera making lucid rounds of the shuttle, is thirteen minutes long. It’s astounding cinema that exceeds itself with every passing minute as the illusion is kept up, until you become completely and irrevocably engrossed in Cuarón’s stupendous vision.
But while you’re being blinded by all this tech-wizardry, you may or may not be aware of the shortcomings in the screenplay, which come dangerously close to soap opera melodrama at times. The most problematic instance of this is Ryan’s story about losing her daughter; that the film does such an excellent job at making us sympathise with its characters the rest of the time renders the X Factor-esque back stories superfluous. Furthermore, the amount of should-be fatal ambushes on the characters get to the point where things start to feel repetitive, causing the film to lose its grip in the final few disasters. Despite this, the story remains surprisingly single-minded, and it’s so much better for it – because what subplots could there be in such a situation as this?
Not only do Avatar and 2001: A Space Odyssey act as Gravity‘s closest antecedents, they’re also coursing through its stunningly rendered veins. Cuarón’s film combines the infinite scope of 2001 with a concentrated version of Avatar‘s humanity, all thrown in with filmmaking that is neither showy nor arrogant, but rather confident and assured. Thanks to DVD featurettes and making-of documentaries, there aren’t many moments in the movies where a film fan is confounded by special effects in 2013, yet there are plenty of instances in Gravity where I was at a complete loss, and what was likely my most common thought throughout the film was: how the fuck did they do that????
Gravity‘s secret weapon, however, is that it draws out the characters’ progress to a snail’s pace while the cold, spontaneous threats come in at a sprint; it’s what gives the film its biggest boost from being a CGI porno to a disturbingly gripping experience. It isn’t hyperbole when I say that I’m a hundred-and-one-percent convinced that, to date, this is the most awe-inspiring experience you will encounter at an IMAX cinema. And sadly, a lot of this film’s magic will disappear when it’s finally pulled from its theatrical run and honorably discharged onto home video, spoiled by those pesky bonus features, lifting the veil for good and all. But at the moment, this is history in the making. It’s undoubtedly the film we will remember 2013 by, and it’s being shown in such ubiquity that it’s silly to miss it. Get yourself to the IMAX before it’s too late.
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cast: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock
Studio: Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Released: 8th November 2013
Running time: 90 minutes