Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Mexican 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
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Starring: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner
Writer/director Neill Blomkamp made the world sit up and take notice in 2009 with District 9, a powerful allegory for apartheid era South Africa and one of the most original science fiction films in recent memory. The success of that film – it took $210 million worldwide off a $30 million budget – has afforded him a larger canvas for his second film, Elysium.
The year is 2154 and Earth is in ruins. Those who can afford it have moved off-planet, taking residence on a man-made habitat in Earth’s orbit called Elysium, where they protect their standard of living by using what’s left of Earth’s resources and protecting their borders from undesirables. On Earth we meet Max, a career criminal trying to live straight. A work accident sees him exposed to a severe dose of radiation, the result of which is he only has five days left to live. His only chance at making it is to get to Elysium.
Despite being a genuine Hollywood movie this time around (the budget is estimated at $115 million) with an A-list cast, Elysium maintains a similar feel to District 9. Again, Blomkamp is engaging in socially conscious science fiction. While Elysium is not as specific and allegorical in its focus as District 9, the film seeks to engage with a number of prominent social issues including the gap between the haves and have-nots, illegal immigration and the seeking of asylum, and the necessity of universal healthcare. It is difficult to imagine that a more overtly socialist Hollywood blockbuster has ever been made.
The film looks amazing. While Blomkamp mainly gets praised for his narrative and broader aesthetic, he is an adept user of CGI. Naturally, as a big-budget sci-fi blockbuster, Elysium contains its share of spectacle, but it is the subtle, unobtrusive way that the film employs CGI which is most impressive. One of the most effective uses of CGI is in the simple way that in the scenes on Earth we can see the distant figure of Elysium hanging in the sky. It has a strange beauty and you can imagine how its constant presence could serve as a torturous reminder to Earth’s impoverished inhabitants of the good life that is just out of reach.
This time around the story is set in America but Blomkamp retains the international flavour which was such a point of difference in District 9. The rundown Los Angeles setting, actually shot in Mexico City, possesses a similar dustbowl aesthetic to the Johannesburg shantytowns of District 9, and stands in stark contrast to the lush greenness of life on Elysium. Both on Earth and Elysium we hear multiple languages spoken. Sharlto Coply, the star of District 9 who is back as the vicious agent Kruger, is even allowed to speak in his natural South African accent.
Blomkamp had a hard act to follow after the success of District 9. Not only was that film so clever and brilliantly executed, it also had the advantage of being a complete surprise. Elysium, as one of the year’s most anticipated blockbusters, has no such luxury. Blomkamp’s offering doesn’t exceed expectations, but it does enough to satisfy them and is definitely the most original and interesting of the big-budget event movies we’ve seen this year.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean