Tagged: Digital Effects

Review – Gravity (2013)

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

GravityMexican director Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men stands alongside Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 and Duncan Jones’s Moon as one of the most interesting science fiction offerings since the turn of the century. Soon after the release of that film he went into pre-production on an even more ambitious science fiction project, Gravity. After a long wait, and going through a couple of studios and numerous casting changes, that film has finally hit the screen and with it Cuarón has stepped into the realm of the truly visionary. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey has been thrown around by a number of critics as a point of comparison and rightly so. As was the case with Kubrick’s film in the late 1960s, Gravity a massive step forward in terms of creating an experience for the viewer and giving us some idea of what it must be like to be in space.

The simple narrative follows two astronauts, the rookie Ryan Stone (Bullock) and the experienced Matt Kowalski (Clooney), who are doing maintenance work on the Hubble Telescope when a field of debris from an exploded Russian satellite comes their way. Travelling so fast that it orbits the world every ninety minutes, the debris tears through everything in its path, destroying the Hubble, their shuttle and killing their crew. Stone and Kowalski are left floating in orbit, without radio contact with Earth, to try and get themselves back home. A classic survival tale, peculiarly the film is as much about being willing to let go as it is about fighting to hold on.

While the screenplay and the performances from Bullock and Clooney are solid, it is the visuals; the cinematography and digital effects, that make Gravity something special. Together with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuarón manages to make space simultaneously terrifying and mesmerizingly beautiful. Lubezki, who was also responsible for the stunning photography of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, gives Gravity a number of moments where the power of the image alone will make you say “Wow.” The film starts with one continuous, 13 minute shot in which the scenario for the film is set up, and this sets the stylistic tone. Gravity employs a number of long shots to great effect, drifting with the characters, giving the camera the same sense of weightless movement as the protagonists. The film also seamlessly moves between points-of-view. A shot may start from within the helmet of one of our characters, looking out, but then move out, turning to catch their reaction to what we’ve just seen.

To get the full experience, Gravity is a film you need to see at the cinema and you need to see it in 3D. I’m not generally a huge fan of the 3D medium. Nine times out of ten it is an unnecessary gimmick used as an excuse to add a couple of dollars to ticket prices and inflate box office revenue. But there are some films, that remaining one out of ten, for which the 3D medium really works and Gravity is such a film. Cuarón’s film is experiential, it is about feeling the experience of being adrift in space, and the 3D helps to immerse you in that.

Gravity is a glorious, profound piece of cinema, and while it is not perfect – there are one or two points at which the spell is momentarily broken – it is unlike any experience you will have at the movies this year.

Rating – ★★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Review – Life of Pi (2012)

Director: Ang Lee

Starring: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Life of PiYann Martel’s 2001 novel Life of Pi was a best seller and much loved. However the story of a young man’s spiritual journey whilst stranded in the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger was considered by many to be unfilmable. But Ang Lee, director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, has proven that with the right director there is no such thing as unfilmable, creating a piece of art that is both highly spiritual and visually breathtaking.

I haven’t read Yann Martel’s novel so I can’t comment on how faithful an adaptation Lee’s film is, but I don’t really think it is important. I find it frustrating when people get hung up on the similarities and differences between novels and film adaptation and about which is better. A faithful adaptation of a novel does not necessarily make a good film. It is more important that the filmmaker use the novel as inspiration for his/her own take on the story. For example, Coppola’s The Godfather is a great film. Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is a great novel. But stylistically they are quite different, with Puzo’s novel being kind of pulpy, while Coppola’s film is grand and operatic. So its faithfulness to Martel’s Life of Pi isn’t as important as the fact that Ang Lee’s Life of Pi is a very good film in its own right.

At the beginning of the film the writer tells the adult Pi that he has sought him out because he has been told he “had a story that would make me believe in God.”  It is this spiritual element which differentiates Life of Pi from Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away and other survival stories we have seen – that and the Bengal tiger. A very spiritual man, Pi sees his journey as having a spiritual significance that goes well beyond a simple fight for survival.

Above everything else, Lee’s film looks amazing. Life of Pi is a stunning aesthetic achievement. With the use of digital technology Lee creates a heightened reality out at sea. Sometimes the sea is rough and choppy and looks very realistic, but at others it is so still and flat it is as though Pi’s boat is floating on nothing at all. This is one of the few films you should try and make sure you see in 3D. I’m not a huge fan of 3D movies, I think the vast majority of the time it is a gimmick used to inflate box office figures, but there are a handful of films which have really demonstrated the potential of the medium if used properly and Life of Pi is one of them.

Equal to the visual achievement as the film’s overall aesthetic is the believability of the tiger, Richard Parker. At the end of the day, the success or failure of the film was largely going to be determined by how successfully Lee made you believe that you were watching a boy and a tiger together on a boat. Richard Parker is created almost entirely with CGI, a wise move as it means there is a consistent look whereas had they tried to use a real tiger as much as possible, there would undoubtedly been jarring moments which would draw attention to the CGI tiger. The computer generated tiger looks brilliant though. You never doubt the reality of the beast before you. Credit should also go to Suraj Sharma, whose performance opposite a CGI tiger is pivotal in establishing the believability of the animal.

Life of Pi is a beautiful, thoughtful film which will be a definite player in the upcoming award season, particularly in the fields of visual effects, cinematography and directing.

Rating – ★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean