There are clearly some film actors who will be always be famous. (Stick with me, you’ll see where I am going with this.) Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, James Stewart and Audrey Hepburn all come instantly to mind. Then there are those who, despite some excellent work in great movies, are not so well remembered; huge stars of their day like Paul Henreid, Glenn Ford and Donna Reid who have drifted out of the public consciousness. It is not easy to predict which category today’s big names will end up in because it isn’t always to do with the work they do or the films they appear in. Of the ones we remember, some died young, some were blond and worked for Hitchcock and some just landed one great role in a classic movie. Immortality is hard to guarantee.
In fifty years time I am sure the film literate kids will still be watching old non-holographic movies with Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks. Then there are relative newbies like Cary Mulligan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jennifer Lawrence who you know are going to cement their place in film history but Chris Pine, Channing Tatum and Ellen Page I couldn’t call. I’ve never been sure about Sandra Bullock either.
At least not until now.
Sure, she has an Oscar but she won a Razzie in the same week (admirably, both of which she collected in person) and this dichotomy has defined her career. For every Speed there is a Speed 2. All that is forgotten now though, The Proposal is rejected, Two Weeks Notice has passed and The Heat is off because in Gravity Sandra Bullock gives a performance that is totally unforgettable. She is moving, emotionally honest, understated when she needs to be understated and overwrought when she needs to overwrought. She dominates the movie and is compelling with a character you really care about. So much that despite minimal make up, a very unflattering haircut and a dirty vest she has never been more beautiful.
Her portrayal of a woman in seemingly hopeless circumstances is so skilled it is hard to think she is the same actor who was last seen slap sticking sellotape to her face opposite Melissa McCarthy. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sandra Bullock’s kooky act when the material is right but she has transcended to somewhere entirely new with Gravity, even when you consider the work she did in Crash and The Blind Side. She will no doubt continue to show her versatility, switching between comedy and drama, but things won’t be the same for Sandra Bullock after this. She has stepped up into a different league and secured her place in Hollywood history.
Of course, key to the film as Sandra Bullock is, there is much much more on offer here than fine acting. Like Life of Pi last year, Gravity is being widely hailed as an eleventh hour contender for film of the year. Other journalists and reviewers have even gone as far as to say it has reinvented cinema. As much as I tried to go in without high expectations it wasn’t going to be easy, Gravity has a lot of good press to live up to. Well, as far as I am concerned it deserves all of the acclaim. Having said that (and by way of not raising your hopes further) I don’t think it is going to appeal equally to everyone. Some viewers might not accept everything that happens on screen as while it is totally believable it may not always be 100% realistic. It isn’t contrived though, it is poetic and open to different interpretations. While there may be better stories told in cinemas this year (even better performances) there hasn’t been anything better suited to the medium of film. There is nothing here that would work in a book, a play or even quite as well on TV.
This is largely down to the incredible visuals. Every so often you will hear a film maker say they had to wait years to make a movie because the technology did not yet exist for them to realise their vision. This time you can see what they mean. As with Avatar, most of what is on screen is computer generated but unlike James Cameron’s film where the (admittedly) impressive backgrounds were so outlandish that they distracted, here the special effects are invisible. You quickly forget that what you are looking at is not real. Also, of course, it is all there in service of the narrative which scores it another point over Avatar. Cameron himself has graciously described Gravity as the best film ever set in space and while I would need to think about it more before I decide if that is true, I do think it is the closest cinema has ever taken us to actually being outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. It isn’t just the environment the director has created, it is also the way we move around it. It is so meticulously put together that storyboards must take longer to look at than the film. It is all stunning and if you are considering seeing this film at all ideally you won’t wait until it comes out on Blu-ray, see it at the cinema on the biggest screen you can possible find.
But still there is more, yes it is well acted and yes it’s pretty but it is also uses metaphor with a subtlety beyond that ever managed by 2001. The choice of title seems curious since, adrift in space, it is a total absence of any gravity that causes so many problems but the film is actually about the things that ground us and tie us to life on earth. The main character (Sandra Bullock, did I mention her?) also has a moment of rebirth played out with some of the most beautiful imagery I have seen both this year and any previous.
Speaking of particular scenes this is the second film I have seen this week that seems to borrow ideas from a Pixar flick. Thor The Dark World homaged Monsters Inc and this time it is WALL.E. You’ll know exactly which bit I am talking about when you see the film.
What then of the man behind the camera? Alfonso Cuarón had already shown himself to be one of the most interesting new directors in English Language cinema. His version of The Little Princess was more than would normally be expected from an adaptation of a classic children’s book and he saved the Harry Potter series before anyone realised it needed saving. Prisoner of Azkaban presents a marked improvement on Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets and set a grown up tone that was carried through to great success in parts 4, 5, 6, 7 part 1 and 7 part 2. Children of Men was also a superb film but like his leading lady, he has moved to a different level with this masterpiece. There is something great about the fact that two of the best directors working in Hollywood today are a Mexican and, with Park Chan Wook, a Korean. It continues a tradition of international artists such as Michael Curtiz, Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski and Ang Lee coming to the US and playing a major role in shaping American cinema.
My one criticism of the film would actually be the (mis)casting of George Clooney who seems to be acting like he is in a different film altogether. Mind you, it is possible that the whole playful but heroic space cowboy thing he has going on is what a lot of astronauts are like. His indulgent anecdotes do take on significance towards the end of the film though and this one objection is only a minor niggle.
The fact is that Gravity is not only one of the finest films of the year but a true classic of cinema that people will be talking about for decades to come. Once in a while, maybe a dozen times in the last one hundred years, we get a landmark movie and that is exactly what we have here.
Which is good for Sandra Bullock.
Bechdel Test Score = 0 but this is one case in which the test doesn’t work. There is only one female character but that does represent 50% of the entire named cast and she is the protagonist. Some critics have said the sex of the main character is irrelevant as it is not a woman’s story as much as it is a human story. I disagree, I don’t think Gravity would have worked as well if Dr Ryan Stone had been the gender her name suggested. Exploring that point could fill a blog entry all by itself.
Is this one for the kids?
Clearly in my opinion this film should be seen by as many people as possible but this is high end 12A. Disaster does strike and in one case it strikes someone right in the face. The resulting injury is not too pretty.
There is also a small amount of swearing but it is entirely appropriate to the circumstances. If I were stranded 250 miles above the Earth I might drop a few expletives too.