Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Gravity (2013)

Gravity is easily Sandra Bullock's best action film to date. Okay, make that her best film to date.

Science fiction films are either speculative or fantastic. In the speculative mode, science fiction serves as a genre of ideas (what if...) while the fantastic mode utilises science fiction as an enabling tool (aliens, high technology, post-apocalypse, time travel) to tell a genre piece (typically a hero’s journey). Film buffs tend to forget that the third leg of science fiction is “hard science” but then again, there hasn’t been much hard science fiction written. Yet with Gravity, Alfono Cuaron reminds us again of the existence of hard science fiction and makes a most eloquent defence of that red-headed stepchild of the genre.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two NASA astronauts who are stranded in space, miles away from any space station, after a rogue satellite crashes into another, creating a chain reaction of deadly space shrapnel. They will either die from lack of oxygen or being shredded to pieces when the debris complete another orbit of the earth.

The premise of Gravity is similar to Isaac Asimov’s short story “Marooned off Vesta” (which would later spawn the hard science mode of science fiction) to the point that it could have been penned by his own hand. The rules of Asimov’s space-based “puzzle stories” are simple: a meticulous construction of a life-or-death situation anchored in actual physics (How much oxygen do the astronauts have? What means of propulsion? The distance to safety?), a shortfall in resources, and a creative mathematical, engineering, or biological solution that our intrepid protagonists work out by the end of the story.

Cuaron matches the meticulous construction of Gravity’s puzzle with a very precise mix of choreography, photography, and special effects that serve not just to anchor the film in reality but also to emphasise the beautiful, even mystical attributes of nature.

Yet the twist in Gravity is how Cuaron takes the hard sci-fi puzzle story and its rejection of the fantastic and reworks it into a vision quest narrative built from very real, very scientific components. In lesser hands, such a transformation of genre and tone would be jarring and hokey. Cuaron’s script and direction makes it effortless and natural for the audience to switch from worrying about the puzzle story to investing themselves in the protagonists’ emotional arc and inner journey.

Gravity is a masterpiece of cinematography, technical direction, and storytelling all at once.

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