Gravity has been fetching rave reviews and heralded as a game-changer in cinematography. But does it really deserve the praise festooned about what is essentially very simple storytelling?
First things first: yes, it’s A Good Film. If you’ve been dithering about whether to see it or not, go and see it. Right now. Go on. Preferably on as large a screen and with as good a 3D as possible: if any film was made for Imax, it was this one.
The CGI is impressive, demonstrating a strong understanding of force and motion that is so often disregarded in films that favour stylistic yet contrived effect sequences. The camerawork is spot on. Close and claustrophobic, with viewpoints resting over the shoulder or inside the helmet, the sense of isolation in space is felt with a convincingly icy terror. There’s also a welcome rebuttal of Hollywood’s craze for ‘cool’ action shots. You know the type: unnecessary bullet time, irritating speed-up/slow-mo sequences, chop-chop editing. The film is instead given a chance to breathe, allowing the camerawork to speak for itself. Long, pendulous takes do an excellent job of building suspense: right from the beginning you’ll feel a slow mounting of tension that is hard to shake.
The 3D is generally good, but I’d argue screen size is the more important factor, allowing for a greater sense of the vertiginous dimensions of space. The 3D can also be counter-intuitive at times, drawing too much attention to itself and reminding us where we are. I didn’t count the number of times an errant screw drifted out into the theatre but it happened a tad too often for my liking. At one point one of Sandra Bullock’s tears floats out serenely into zero gravity, the depth of field bringing it sharply into focus. The film is left behind as this strange revenant hovers above the audience. It’s an undeniably tender moment but – alongside the wandering screws – ultimately feels rather gimmicky, and worse, threatens to undo the film’s otherwise sterling efforts of involving us within the story. This cardinal sin is unfortunately the hubris of 3D in general but is, tellingly, this film’s only excess.
The storyline itself is blindingly simple, and turns out to be both the film’s key strength and underlying weakness. It plays out as the first lesson of plot-writing in action: make the character want something, then put as many things in their way of achieving it as possible. Here, the isolation of character and setting only draws attention to the starkness of this plot. Bullock’s character is stranded in space, desperately wanting to get back to earth in one piece, with a somewhat linear sequence of environmental hazards arising to hinder her. The fact that she is highly likely to overcome these obstacles in order for the story to progress hardly registers: the episodic sense of peril and her flaws of character ask us to root for her survival, and demand that we believe in the tangibility of the threats that assail her. The closer she gets to reaching her goal, the more she wants it (and the more we root for her), and the stakes rise proportionately. A standard plotline with an obvious narrative outcome, yet one that’s easy to get along with regardless.
This suspension of logic in humouring Gravity’s glaringly simple plotline is perhaps accentuated by another element of the film’s storytelling: its similarity to a computer game. There has been an increasing trend lately where films – long the influence behind many narrative-driven action games – have in turn been influenced by computer games themselves. Star Trek: Into Darkness suffered heavily from this, being a long chain of poorly set up action sequences, paced much like an onerous quick time event in an action game. Gravity bears similar criticisms: the behind-the-shoulder camera angles and long takes emphasise the impression of a computer game playing itself on the cinema screen. As Bullock’s character pulls herself hand over hand around the satellite, we wonder if perhaps we should be helping out with a few button taps or control-stick wiggles.
Despite this, Gravity suffers far less than Star Trek, and perhaps even benefits from this influence: unlike a film there is no certainty that we will make it through to the end of a computer game in one piece. Perhaps this uncertainty transfers unconsciously to Gravity’s narrative pull, making us fear for Bullock’s predicament not because the story would suggest it (it doesn’t), but rather because these pitfalls and perils are all too familiar to us in worlds we have visited ourselves, gamepad in hand. A phantom Game Over screen hovers above Bullock’s space-based platforming, a relatable fear that we, as gamers, have encountered many times before.
The mellowing influences that bring Gravity back to film territory are the delicate moments of introspection and despair. It is the emphasis on character in these momentary ‘safe’ places that break up the action and allow for a touch of the human to come through. By themselves, neither Bullock’s sparse back story nor Clooney’s dull anecdotes are especially arresting, or even convincing. Take a step back, however, and you can see how the protagonist’s emotional development and the film’s themes manifest symbolically, and with a certain majesty, in the overall structure. Ultimately Gravity is revealed as an internal trial, a metaphorical setting for the psychological struggles experienced by the protagonist as she seeks to overcome personal trauma. The isolated environment, ‘in the blind’, helps convey this sense of a solitary, internalised struggle, the uterine absence of space providing a canvas upon which the mind may be untangled. It is here that the uncontrollable forces of gravity bear witness to their emotional parallels that carry and buffet us through life itself.
A special mention deservedly goes to Steven Price’s evocative work on the soundtrack. This is also a welcome departure from recent Hollywood trends – the single-note horn blasts of Inception and the rising strings of the Dark Knight trilogy are gratefully absent. What we have instead is a marriage of retro-influenced space ambience – a conglomeration of electronic hums and whistles, alongside some shivering, icy notes – and a simple, two-note signature reminiscent of the Jaws theme tune. Here, of course, the spook of nature is gravity itself: the imminent approach of orbiting debris is heralded by this sinister theme, rising to a crescendo when the shit really does hit, before vanishing in an air-locked instant the moment Bullock’s character reaches her dry ground.
The bravery and integrity of Gravity derives not from any revolution of form but rather from its stripping away of current filmic trends, of cutting down and narrowing in. The sense of drama and epic is allowed to arise naturally through an uncompromising focus, whether this is through the simplistic psychologically-charged storyline, the claustrophobic camera angles, or a single teardrop detaching itself from the screen. At times this focus reveals flaws rather than strengths, but overall the result is a film that impresses with its portrayal of helplessness in the face of relentless consequential motion, and its structural subtext of turbulent introspection. An escapist fantasy in its purest sense.
An edition of this article first appeared at StudentCom on 9th December 2013.