Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (US); November 7th, 2013 (UK)
Genre: Drama; Science-fiction; Thriller
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been lauded with praise from audiences and critics alike since its recent big screen release, being labelled groundbreaking, pioneering cinema. Emphatically described as immersive and emotive. Even breathtaking. Perhaps so much so that no space-set extravaganza will ever be the same again, purely because space on film in the future has a Gravity-esque brass ring to aspire to.
This abundance of praise, however, has been attributed primarily to Gravity in its 3D format (heck, even Mark Kermode thoroughly enjoyed this version). The jury is therefore still out on Gravity in its classic, run-of-the-mill 2D version. Does the trend-setting cinematography and floaty camera work succeed at all in two-dimensions? Is the film as engrossing and all-encompassing without the plethora of protruding debris and George Clooney-ness?
Quite simply, the answer to these questions is no. Not a resounding no, but a no nonetheless. And this flares up a number of issues, the most significant being whether or not Gravity in 3D is, more-so than any other three-dimensional film to date, essentially a theme park thrill ride in a cinema. Perhaps even — put in the plainest of terms — a gimmick. This is not necessarily a negative — film critic Danny Leigh on BBC’s Film 2013 mentioned that the film which Gravity reminded him most of was the Lumière Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (known in the UK as Train Pulling into a Station).
First shown in 1895, the film is a short 50-second piece depicting a steam train’s arrival at a bustling station. The first of its kind, the oncoming train apparently startled audience members and sent them fleeing in fear of the vehicle. The Lumière Brothers, themselves pioneers in the art of filmmaking, perceived cinema and the cinematic experience as a physical one, where audience members would be totally entranced and involved in what they were seeing. This was the birth of cinema and back then cinema was an out-of-body experience.
Fast-forward over a century and, by all accounts, this wholly enveloping feeling has returned as Gravity in 3D. But the same cannot be said for Gravity in 2D. The film sees Sandra Bullock’s Ryan Stone on her first space shuttle mission, partnering spacewalk veteran Matt Kowalski (Clooney) on his final mission (you can see where this one is going). After hearing news of a Russian satellite accident, the pair are bombarded with the resultant debris and metal, leaving them separated, low on oxygen and in desperate need of a safe return to Earth — to gravity.
Gravity (2D) looks stunning. The intricately manoeuvring astro-camera delicately shifts around the blackness, almost giving off the sense that the viewer is up there with the mission team (it probably does relay this sensation entirely, in 3D). The screen displays the magnificence of planet Earth in its fullest form and the film, as a purely flat visual output, looks simply awesome. So awesome that the philosophical Kowalski comments on the “beauty” a number of times.
Bullock is good as Dr. Stone, a woman who has recently lost her child and finds solace in the emptiness of space — an emptiness that no doubt has engulfed her for what feels like millennia, and that has left her devoid of any genuine happiness or enthusiasm for life. George Clooney does George Clooney very well, bursting with unbridled charisma and charm. The pair, and Bullock in particular, do genuinely come across as actors who have gone hell-for-leather and to ensure that there is a completely organic impression emitted from their space-set performances, an organic understanding that the film itself does incredibly well to generate (a generation likely far greater in 3D) as it was obviously unable to shoot on location.
Here is where Gravity (2D) returns from cloud nine to the bleak pavements of earth: the narrative is nothing more than just alright. Much of the film sees the astronauts glide around space for a period of time before colliding with a number of space stations and shuttles as they search for a route back to Earth. The novelty of watching these small, inconsequential beings wander at times aimlessly around the dark beyond wears off fairly early on, and unfortunately the dialogue is too commonplace and puffy to keep the audience attentive. There are bountiful amounts of clichés (“I’ve got a bad feeling about this”) and a number of deep-rooted conversations about existence and life (foetal position alert) recycled from sci-fi B-movies. The film is self-aware of this, and it would seem that the 3D version of Gravity does not need to worry about plot because the entrenching nature of proceedings means viewers are too busy being wowed by that new, exciting feeling of immersion in space alongside the characters.
Here lies the fundamental dispute that the 2D versus 3D debate boils down to: Gravity (2D) is a visually wonderful, but narratively generic drama about people in space trying to return home, whereas Gravity (3D) is a revolutionary experience in watching and becoming part of a film — it is pure cinema, the essence of what the Lumière Brothers envisioned all those years ago.
There is a moment towards the end of Gravity (2D) where the camera pans above a number of objects travelling very rapidly over the Earth. Even in two-dimensions this is a spine-tingling moment, and it evokes a final 15 minutes that is tense, goosebump-inducing and quite simply brilliant. These final moments probably equate to every moment in Gravity (3D). If that truly is the case, Alfonso Cuarón has done something pretty special indeed. The director has vehemently pushed for the film to be seen in all its three-dimensional glory, on the biggest screen, and it seems that is exactly how it should be seen.
I’m off to the IMAX.