Gravity (2013)

At once intimate and epic, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama does things differently than its counterparts – and way better.

gravityUSA
5*

Director:
Alfonso Cuarón

Screenwriters:
Alfonso Cuarón

Jonás Cuarón
Director of Photography:
Emmanuel Lubezki

Running time: 90 minutes

Films like Gravity are one in a million. Besides reminding everyone of the incredible visual talents he has that never overwhelm the story he tells, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón, who has honed his skills at directing long but dynamic scenes with a single take, ambitiously faced the challenge of a minimal cast and has delivered a film for the ages.

Although an opening title card informs those viewers who have never seen Alien or read its famous tagline, “In space no one can hear you scream,” that there is no sound out in space, and that life for humans is impossible in such a void, the silence throughout the film is truly deafening.

Drifting high above the blue marble, NASA scientists Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are leisurely at work on the exterior of their spacecraft. The experienced Kowalsky is listening to some music, propelling himself from side to side with his jetpack and having a lot of fun. Stone is a little more tense. She’s young, and until recently her familiarity with space had been limited to time spent in a simulator, always with disastrous results.

NASA’s mission control, on the other end of the line, patiently listens to Kowalsky tell his stories for the umpteenth time, and all the while we are immersed in the beauty of Planet Earth’s blues and greens in the background. This may be the first feature film that actually warrants the IMAX ticket.

But even while we are awestruck by the beauty of the scene, shot in a seemingly unbroken take for several minutes, there is a gentle shift toward exceptional danger. First, Stone asks Kowalsky to switch off the music, which is being pumped through her headset as well, so that she can concentrate. The silence, only disrupted by the duo’s breathing, suddenly makes for a much more dramatic soundtrack. Stone is struggling to finish her work, and Houston is not picking up whatever she is doing. And then, suddenly, chaos envelops the scene.

Debris from the destruction of a Russian satellite hurtles their way, causing a chain reaction with far-reaching effects that will last until the end of the film. It’s mostly small bits of material, but at the velocity they’re traveling they are miniature mobiles of death, and when the spacecraft starts to break up, we realise how quickly this can turn catastrophic.

What makes Gravity so exhilarating is not only the very obvious technical mastery of its director, but the combination of elements that are perfectly controlled yet never feel like they are calculated to elicit a particular response from the viewer. The minimalism of the cast, the setting and the action may well lull us into a false sense of comfort, but every so often we get another jolt to the system because we are reminded how perilous the vast emptiness of space can be to an earthling. 

As Stanley Kubrick knew all too well when he made his landmark science-fiction film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, silence is not only necessary because it faithfully recreates the conditions in space but also because its effect on the viewer can be devastating. Whereas Kubrick’s film had an astronaut’s oxygen supply cut during a spacewalk by a disgruntled computer, and a soundtrack that cut all sound as we saw the poor man drifting out into space, Gravity has scenes of large-scale destruction in complete silence, which is absolutely chilling to watch.

Stone and Kowalsky survive the first incident, but as the story progresses, their oxygen tanks running empty and them having to face recurring disasters, all the result of that Russian satellite exploding offscreen, we see how small things can lead to heavy damage.

Cuarón, whose director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki already did some terrific visual work with single takes in the director’s Children of Men, here again uses special effects in ways that bring us closer to the story. At one point, the camera is right up against Sandra Bullock as she tumbles farther and farther away from Earth. Every time she breathes, we edge closer, until the camera seems to penetrate the helmet of her space suit. It continues, until it turns around (inside the helmet!) and shows us her point of view.

The only misstep takes place late in the film, when the camera becomes an invisible presence pointing out a potential hazard that the character in the scene fails to notice.

But Gravity is not only about the visuals. While mostly focusing on the drama to survive the constant ordeal and steer clear of flying debris that only accumulates, it also has some beautiful moments that create a connection between us and them. To reveal the content of these moments would be to give away too much, but one particularly effective gem comes in the form of a radio conversation in which neither speaker can see or understand the other, but ends with us emotionally wrecked.

Gravity does not stand in awe at the mystery of space that made 2001: A Space Odyssey such a hit and still fuels discussions about its meaning. It does not try to reinvent the wheel; it is a story about staying alive in the most desolate place imaginable, and Cuarón’s handling of the space-fiction material is epic but never self-important and takes our breath away.

All Is Lost (2013)

Robert Redford’s tour de force as a man lost at sea makes us realise what has been missing from single-character movies.

all-is-lostUSA
4.5*

Director:
J.C. Chandor

Screenwriter:
J.C. Chandor

Director of Photography:
Frank G. DeMarco

Running time: 105 minutes

It’s not easy to carry a film all on your own. Philip Baker Hall did it as a ranting Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, a film that unfortunately wasn’t as compelling as director Robert Altman’s other chamber film, the ensemble-driven Streamers, and to some extent Ryan Reynolds (with the help of voices on the other end of a phone line) pulled it off in the disturbing Buried.

All is Lost puts all previous lone-character efforts to shame (most notably, Tom Hanks’ talkative island man in Cast Away), as the film’s main and only character does not even have a name, and the director doesn’t take the easy way out by having him speak to himself. Played by Robert Redford, “Our Man” has a full three lines of dialogue, of which half consist only of the odd four-letter word to explain his frustration with the situation or vocalise the realisation that this may be the end.

The situation is the following: Having navigated his yacht to a point on the Indian Ocean far away from any civilization – and most significantly, 1,700 miles from the seaway all cargo ships use to transport their goods across the vast body of water – he wakes up to discover his yacht, the Virginia Jean, is taking in water. While he was asleep on the calm seas, a container filled with tiny shoes had fallen off a cargo ship, bobbed on the waves and eventually struck his boat. Fortunately, for the most part, the hole can be repaired; unfortunately, it’s not going to be calm seas all the time, and plain sailing is out of the question.

The film is about survival on open waters as much as Gravity is about survival in outer space. In both films, there is no one to help you when you need it most, and you are left to your own devices to figure out what to do and how quickly to do it, because time – or oxygen, or fresh water – is running out.

Being a seaman means being creative and prepared for anything. When you are exposed to the elements, with only yourself and a tiny boat standing between life and death, a situation can turn extremely challenging if you don’t know how to deal with potentially disastrous turns of events. You can never completely relax.

That is what Redford’s character here learns very quickly. And even though we know nothing about him – not his name, nor how long he has been on the water, nor anything about his family history – we feel entirely sympathetic towards his predicament. We can see he is doing his best, and he clearly has spent some time on the water during his lifetime, but still, the fear is always there that nature will wreak too much havoc for him to handle.

Every time we hear thunder rolling, our stomachs start to churn, and for most of the second half of the film, the tension is nearly unbearable. It is the result of many different factors that include the sharpening of our senses, because there is never any dialogue to distract us from the action; the potential that the lead character will drown; and the uncertainty of how long this ordeal will last before the sun breaks through and the enormous waves subside.

We have not seen this kind of action at sea since The Perfect Storm, and although a few shots of Redford at the helm taken in the midst of a storm don’t look entirely realistic, the rest of the production comes across flawlessly, at least in its visual presentation. I am no seaman, so I can’t judge how accurate or suitable the character’s actions are and whether they in any way made the situation better or worse. But Redford’s depiction of a man whose demeanour changes from calm, controlled and determined to dehydrated, exhausted and slightly delirious is a truly compelling job of acting, and he deserves great credit for steering the film in the right direction.

The film is only the second by director J.C. Chandor, whose 2011 début Margin Call also took place in a limited time and place: over a period of 24 hours in an investment bank, shortly before the 2008 financial crisis hit.

All is Lost has a perfectly ambiguous ending, and although one can quibble about the need for an opening voice-over that attempts to frame the film in terms of suspense rather than surprise (as if the title didn’t suffice), it is a breath-taking work of fiction that shows what single-character dramas should look like.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013