Every day, from now until the weekend of the 2014 Academy Awards, HeyUGuys will be publishing an article championing one of the nine films in contention for the coveted Best Picture Oscar. We will be collecting them all here, where you can find the previous articles.
Today Ross Jones-Morris gets to grips with Gravity, the very definition of a film which needs to be seen in cinemas.
Gravity is an unconventional Oscar front-runner for a number of reasons. From the moment that the ascending Dolby-esque tone on the title screen cuts to two minutes of apparent nothingness above the peaceful Earth, you know you’re in for something unconventional, a film of contrasts. Gravity delivers just that, and not always in the best way imaginable.
Over the next one-and-a-half hours Gravity will have its silent moments and its loud ones (non-diegetic nevertheless) and then, you know, more silence. And then guess what – more loudness. In fact, as Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone seeks to save herself from space, she will travel through a suspiciously cyclical sequence of events that will ratchet up the tension and then pay off that tension in equal measure, over and over again as she seeks to return to Earth. It’s a simple structure, and when people criticise Gravity it’s usually one of the first things they bring up. So let’s get down to that first and foremost because, to be blunt, it’s a fair criticism.
Gravity’s case isn’t helped by the fact that It doesn’t try and hide this almost facile structure. It wears its trite transitions on its sleeve – the shocking ‘quiet with a chance of space debris’ springs to mind. It also crowbars in the lost daughter sympathy sub-plot and its subsequent howling dog conversation with little regard for subtlety. But does all of this matter? In most cases it would, but then again, being one of the highest grossing and highly praised movies of last year means that Gravity isn’t most cases.
What it is, is a B-Movie? But we aren’t talking The Expendables here. Gravity is a B-Movie with a B-Movie aesthetic and A+ special effects and most importantly A+ direction. The script might be creaky as all hell and the plot line might as well read ‘exciting bit, sad bit, exciting bit’, but this isn’t about the script, or indeed motherhood as many have sought to say as some sort of intellectual defence of this thematically un-intellectual film. This is a roller coaster ride, that despite itself somehow draws you in to its characters. It is also one of the most viscerally entertaining spectacles ever committed to film. With Gravity Cuaron just sets out his simple stall and then goes about systematically showing all other directors why they should be out of business. And he does so without any serious substance whatsoever.
That Gravity is terrifically entertaining ride is almost without question anyway. But as you may have queried by now (especially after my repeated criticisms) you surely don’t win best picture through entertainment value alone. If that was the case they should just give next year’s Best Picture award to The Lego Movie right now and be done with it. To win Best Picture your film needs to be something else. Not moving, or profound, no. Hundreds of films move us or ‘affect’ us every year. Your film has to be better than that. It has to be important – and if it’s moving and profound, all’s the better.
Importance is why quite hokey films like Avatar have been in contention in the past and why Blue is the Warmest Colour won’t be getting a look in. Even a small indie-spirited film that makes it, like Her for example, has no real chance whatsoever. It’s good, but it’s not Oscar bait. 12 Years a Slave is great and all, but come on, you just knew it was going to get nominated before it came out. A hard hitting film about a race related issue? Next to a film about a man fighting AIDS? Meryl Streep? This years Oscars does have a whiff of the familiar about it. But then again, doesn’t it always.
A good comparison here is the aforementioned Avatar, the arguable runner up for Best Picture in 2009 – where it lost to The Hurt Locker. Avatar’s real calling card was its pioneering mix of (almost) photo realistic CGI and live action that allowed James Cameron to conjure up the fantastically realised Pandora. Not since Avatar has CGI been used to build worlds to such great effect. And that is what is being done here in Gravity. In the empty vacuum of space that surrounds the beautiful CGI Earth there is little besides Earth itself, and accordingly Earth looms terrifically large throughout. It becomes everything, both enemy and salvation. It’s all our two heroic astronauts have, and from the orbiting debris bullets sent round at the start of the film to the threat of burning up on reentry, it’s trying its best to kill them.
From the opening shot to the final shot, the thought of having ones feet on terra firma is foremost in our mind. Zero-gravity effects have been floating round films for years now but never have they been so expertly presented. Think Sandra Bullock’s Ryan spinning uncontrollably away from Earth whilst trying to get her bearings. She is, unmistakeably, flying away from Earth and yet one minute she’s coming in to the camera, the next moment in, or right or left, and it’s only then that you truly realise what a lack of gravity does to your perception of location. There is none.
But more than just telling us this Alfonso Cuaron helps us experience it by using a uniquely cinematic process, as Cuaron’s passion for the long take finds no more profound expression than here. More than just a stylistic self-indulgence, his balletic synthesis of long unbroken shots, swooping camera-work, CGI and live action weave together in a way that is as immersive as it is technologically remarkable. Gravity shows us the state of modern technology and interweaves it with expert filmmaking to develop something truly ahead of its time.
It’s this application of technological innovation to an out-of-this-world experience that has rendered every prior portrayal of space outdated in a single swoop. It’s a trait that alongside the rollicking action set pieces renders Gravity an all-encompassing fairground ride and the most fantastically visceral experience ever projected on a cinema screen. Gravity has pushed the boundaries of what cinema is capable of and in doing so has raised the bar for all films to come.
When Gravity was released last October it did so much more than entertain us. Whilst other films tugged at our heart strings and said things entirely more profound than the words found in this clunky script, Gravity has become what I believe to be the most confidently delivered and important film of last year. And the most entertaining. It didn’t play by the rules or tell an interesting story in a familiar way. It didn’t even do anything that would usually lead to Oscar contention in anything but the technical categories. What it did do was change cinema as a medium, just that little bit. And after 100 years of innovation that’s a massive accomplishment.