2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

★★★★★

Director: Stanley Kubrick

Release Date: April 3rd, 1968 (US limited)

Genre: Adventure; Mystery; Science-fiction

Starring: Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, William Sylvester, Douglas Rain

Where to begin?

The beginning of time, apparently. A group of apes, shepherded by an apparent leader, are growled at and hounded from their waterhole having already lost a member via the scissor-like teeth of a leopard. It appears; seemingly from nowhere, from nothing: a large and brooding object, known as the monolith. The beasts shriek, cower and then gain strength in its presence. Shortly thereafter, the now tactical, abrasive early hominids have reclaimed their waterhole. Clutching a bone, envisioning a tool, the leader tosses his symbol of construction, destruction and all else into air.

We’re floating in space.

It truly is a remarkable opening sequence, Stanley Kubrick’s depiction of premature life dissolving into an achievement-driven existence, an existence embodied by the amazing feat of spatial prosperity. By squashing life’s inception all the way through to thriving humanity into only a few minutes, is Kubrick trivialising said time period? Is he playing down the importance of thousands of years in anticipation of what is to come next? Perhaps. Yet it is the black structure, the monolith that is most intriguing. So odd in its appearance, the edged object turns ominous; what of its instantly empowering effect on the apes? Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the most influential pieces of cinema, of art, to be born out of the last century, and in less than 10 minutes it pillages viewers with more questions than answers. Over a two hour and 40 minute run-time these questions double, treble, as Kubrick raises issue after issue including our reliance on machines, mechanical manipulation, the significance of alien existence, of shapes even. He does all of this whilst celebrating humankind and our limitless prerogative. It’s wonderful.

Zarathustra, speak. Cue the brass…

Across four far-reaching periods of time, each one linked existentially and thematically to the next, 2001: A Space Odyssey engages in a tale — the tale — of life. After encountering the early hominid creatures, we ascend over the horizon into space and join Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) are he prepares for a mission to Clavius Base in the midst of some abnormal goings-on. The narrative sprints ahead thereafter, to the Jupiter Mission, doctors Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) and David Bowman (Keir Dullea), and their increasingly claustrophobic relationship with ship computer HAL 9000 (Douglas Rain). Finally, Kubrick takes us on a peculiar and tantalising journey across, through and around the cosmos, blanketed in an array of magnificent cosmological phenomena.

This collection of chronological mini-movies, although odd at first glance, succeeds two-fold: in compounding the monumental story being told, and in detailing the development of mindful curiosity, technological prowess and emotional manipulation. The first strand — the only section to be located on land — portrays everything primitive. The ape, soon to become man. The waterhole, soon to become territory. The bone, soon to become a sword, and a sceptre, and a hammer. It’s smart, cunning almost, as the sequence sets your brain clogs in motion. And the viewer’s mind is certainly going to need to be switched on, as the black vacuum above plays host to everything that follows.

An iconic image: the bone thrown and subsequently plummeting through the air, snappily followed by a space shuttle harnessed by gravity. Perhaps an indication of humankind’s selfishly perceived stability all these years later. Selfish in their control over nature, and negligence of mechanical reliance. Machines that seemingly have a “dependence on people,” at least that’s the view of Heywood, and later both Frank and David. Kubrick switches his line of questioning, batting that now aged-old ‘man versus machine’ adage that was gaining prominence around the film’s release in 1968. The internal AI system, HAL, is essentially the ticking heart of Discovery One, Frank and David’s space liner — HAL’s physical appearance burns a bright reddish-orange, symbolising the sun. Yet the system is almost secondary to the humans on board, simply a part of their routine; machinery assists in cooking food (unlike the raw meat off the slain bone eaten by apes), in steering the ship, providing entertainment (HAL wins at a game of chess), and almost all else.

This notion of machine-driven consumption prevails throughout the film, climaxing in HAL’s eventual devilishness and therefore implying both that machine has absolute rule over man, and that it is perhaps the next stage in the evolution of life. Douglas Rain is deadpan as the system’s voice, verbalising in an incredibly unassuming-turned-condescending manner (“Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult”). Coincidentally, this converging relationship between man and machine has once again reared its societal hand recently, in Spike Jonze’s Her, a story about a man who falls in love with his AI system. The topic is an intriguing one, and Stanley Kubrick tackles it as well as anybody has done (or will do).

There are also other subtexts rummaging around, including our intrinsic attraction to the search for alien existence, conveyed by how characters interact with the menacing monoliths scattered throughout. Another irregular data byte comes by way of shapes — the sphere: HAL, the ship’s centre, and planet Earth indicating a form of coming full circle; the rectangle: those brooding and dangerous monoliths, offering no leeway; and the picturesque octagon: part of Discovery One’s walkway, an uncommon shape signalling strange happenings.

Interspersed within this ocean of thought-provoking query is a soundtrack as wide-ranging as the eon covered, yet one that maintains a common brassy undertone. Celebratory and grandiose, Richard Strauss’ “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” blares as a triumphant recognition of achievement. Conversely, scores of haunting, ghostly tones wail out like human souls in fear of extraterrestrials; it’s the ambience of the unknown. Geoffrey Unsworth has a whole universe to work with, and his cinematography is marvellous. The special effects, though obviously not up to present day standards, are admirable in their imagination — the influence of the camera work on show here can be seen propelling modern movies like Gravity. Performances from Keir Dullea, Gary Lockwood, and William Sylvester are by no means the centrepiece of proceedings, but Dullea in particularly stands out depicting of the authority-battling and bearings-losing Dr. David Bowman.

Stanley Kubrick films are renowned for offering more questions than answers. This potentially problematic mantra shows no sign of miss-deployment here, instead thriving in tandem with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film that encompasses all of time and that debates the multitude of lives lived throughout.

Images copyright (©): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Gravity (2D) (2013)

★★★

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

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.

Gravity (Out November 7th, 2013)

He’s been there once and he enjoyed it so much that he has decided to return. That is right, George Clooney is back on the big screen this autumn — in space. Unlike Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film Solaris starring Clooney, Gravity is a brand new script written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, his first film in seven years.

Set in space, Gravity follows the progress of astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) — a veteran serving his last mission — and medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) — a rookie on her first Space Shuttle outing. The film is set for release on October 4th in the Unites States, therefore we do not know much about the plot at the time of writing other that what is shown in the recently unveiled teaser trailer (below): whilst carrying out a spacewalk — activities conducted by an astronaut outside his/her spacecraft — Kowalsky and Stone’s shuttle explodes leaving both space inhabitants stranded.

There have been countless films creates depicting helpless individuals trapped in space — either on a planet or in a shuttle. Recently, Apollo 18 graced our screens: a fictional portrayal of events after the cancelled Apollo 18 mission. Before that, Duncan Jones’ impeccable debut film Moon starring Sam Rockwell carried the mystique and tension of the stuck in space scenario. Going even further back, Event Horizon, Silent Running and Alien are all examples that the stranded in space genre — although still intriguing — is not a new one.

“Ten across, four letters, ‘to unveil one’s buttocks’ — any ideas?”

However, the commonality between all of the aforementioned films with which Gravity does not appear to share is that the helpless characters were trapped in a spaceship or on a planet, whereas Cuarón has delivered Clooney and Bullock to us suspended and floating in space. All signs point towards this being the case for the vast majority of the motion picture, which is something I personally have not seen before.

The trailer offers very little in the way of plot development, but a whole lot in regards to visuals, which are simply stunning. This should not come as a surprise to those who have seen Cuarón’s last outing in the director’s chair, Children of Men, which encapsulated and illustrated a dystopian Earth both effortlessly and beautifully. He was also the mastermind behind the highly regarded third act in the Harry Potter film franchise: Prisoner of Azkaban.

Alfonso Cuaron
“This is so heavy, stupid gravity!”

With a similar budget to Children of Men (Children of Men came in at around $76 million and Gravity has hit the $80 million mark) and with two very accomplished and impressive actors at the helm (albeit after a number of cast changes — Robert Downey Jr and Natalie Portman were once the leading candidates), Gravity has the potential to blow audiences away. Having originally been scheduled for a 2012 release and been pushed back a year to 2013, I think it is about time the Gravity shuttle was grounded so that we can all witness Alfonso Cuarón at work once again.