Friday, 21 February 2014

Oscar Review – Gravity (Spoilers)

In the same way the Oscar academy seems to have a thing for films with a period setting the flip side of this is their track record of overlooking Science Fiction films.  This is to the point where no film of that genre has ever won the top gong (though Sci Fi has often dominates the technical awards). This may be part of a wider cultural phenomenon of critics and filmy types not taking the genre seriously. This view has broken down somewhat in recent years with films like Inception and District 9 earning both critical acclaim and best picture nominations. Perhaps the best chance of breaking Sci Fi's long dry spell is with Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity.

The set up is simple enough. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two astronauts who, whilst on a space, walk are stranded after their shuttle is destroyed by a debris field caused by those damn Ruskies shooting down their own satellite. It's has been praised as a game changer in both special effects and 3D film making. So how does it stack up? 

The Good
I have in the past been unimpressed by the term “game changer” when it comes to special effects films. At the forefront of my mind was the film Avatar which, whilst being similarly described as revolutionary film making, failed to impress me, both in terms of the special effects and the film itself. Unlike Avatar however, Gravity lived up to the hype. The film is an astonishing technical achievement. Cuarón's has taken a rather simple plot about survival and set it in the single most hostile environment in which humans have managed to exist and, with few exceptions, he makes this environment real. Using a mixture of sweeping long shots and close up views of the astronauts in their cramp spacesuits the film somehow manages to draw on the contradictory experiences of claustrophobia and agoraphobia at the same time. As for the 3D, and I know this is not an original notion, this is the first film I have seen where the technology was a necessary part of the experience. The effects and 3D come in to their own as the debris field passes through the shot, tearing apart everything from the shuttle docked with the Hubble telescope to the ISS. On a final technical note, I am glad we can finally see a film (Serenity aside) that shows space for the soundless environment it is. This adds to the feeling of claustrophobia as the only sound we hear comes from within the confined spacesuits.  I also liked the use of the heart monitors as technological replacement for hearing ones own heartbeat.

One thing central to it's success is the simplicity of the plot. Serious Sci Fi films of this nature can often get bogged down in serious existential questions and analyses of the human condition (think 2001) or attempt to set up a complex expansive universe (Avatar). Really, I'd like to take the intellectual high ground (it's my natural state) and criticise Gravity for not being a deep exploration of what it means to be human. However, I think turning this into anything other than a film about survival would have been a mistake. This is not to say to that the film lacks depth. The scene in A certain character makes the decision to give up and switch off the oxygen shows that survival is as much a psychological challenge as it is a physical one. In the end, however, the film is about a novice astronaut, trying to survive and get home and this is all it needed to be about.

Finally, despite all of these pros, it's greatest achievement, towering over all others, is that I spent two hours with Sandra Bullock and I didn't find her annoying. She was well cast as a person, at first out of her depth, having to quickly adapt to a very dangerous and rapidly changing situation.

The Bad
The result of Google image search "george clooney smug gravity"
The first negative, and I won't say too much about this, is that Clooney could be annoying almost to the point of distraction and I was glad when he drifted off to his inevitable death. It's not that I don't like Clooney as some films do require a smug punchable face from time to time. But in this his smugness was turned up to 11 and it almost had the effect of pulling me out of the story.

There has been a great deal of discussion over the accuracy of the science in this film. There are apparent some scientific inaccuracies and I'd recommend Phil Plait's analysis of the film. Though, as Plait says, in general these inaccuracies in no way diminish the overall quality of the film. Having said that, there is one moment that even I, as a scientific layman, knew did not make any sense. Sorry for the spoiler, but as the astronauts collide with the International Space Station, Clooney overshoots and is only connected to the station and Bullock via a parachute chord. He sacrifices himself, (in an annoyingly smug George Clooney way) by letting go of the chord and drifting away. My basic understanding of physics tells me that once his momentum had matched the ISS he wouldn't drift off if he let go of the chord. Also, they are in zero G so surely Bullock could have simply pulled him in. This was the one moment where I was fully pulled out of the film as it combined a glaring scientific inaccuracy with Clooney at his smuggest.

Final Thoughts

Without it's CGI Gravity would make for a reasonable film. It has an interesting story and concept and the performances, smugness aside, are fine. However, it is the awe inspiring visuals and genuinely ground breaking special effects that makes Gravity stand out as a Best Oscar contender.

Whatever the case, I can't wait for the DVD special features.

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