“-a lot of these problems could be forgiven if Gravity didn’t commit the worst sin of all: being intensely boring.”
wrote Alan Evans in his Nov 2014 blog on The Guardian film site. It was a sentiment echoed by my son as we stepped out into the early October evening having just watched Alfonso Cuaron's ‘Gravity’ at the Gaumont Cinema in France. And it was an opinion shared by my colleagues at the BBC’s Writersroom who went to see the film on my recommendation.
I was flabbergasted – ‘Gravity’, boring?
When I stepped out into that October evening my brain was numb – I literally couldn’t think I was so overwhelmed. This sense of awe wasn’t because I had been sitting in the Gaumont’s largest screen marvelling at the technical wizardry (I try to avoid ‘making of’ documentaries before I see the film), nor because of the pared down narrative structure that takes Joseph Campbell’s monomyth and condenses it to its absolute essential beats and not because the film had a female lead in what would normally have been a man’s role.
I was completely and utterly overwhelmed because for the first time in my cinema-going life I shared a kinship with those nascent cinephiles who turned up to watch ‘L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat’ by the Lumiere Brothers in January 1896. The myth is that when the audience saw the train bearing down on them many screamed and ran to the back of the cinema. Completely silent and in one continuous take the train moves from long shot, to mid-shot to close up. In 1896 it was thrilling, enthralling and inexplicable: it was a piece of cinema.
And that is why I was so stunned by ‘Gravity’: it is an entity that couldn’t exist in any other medium – not as a novel, nor as a play, or as a television drama. ‘Gravity’ was a piece of entertainment that had to be seen on the biggest screen possible in a dark room with a crowd of people all grabbing onto their seats as Dr. Ryan Stone struggled to survive in space. From the opening 13mins single shot that weaves in and out of the astronauts and the shuttle, to the camera sliding into Sandra Bullock’s helmet so we get her POV and then sliding back out again, to the wide shots of the space capsule framed by the aurora in the bg, to the pull focus onto a single tear so we can see Bullock refracted in it, to the final low angle shot looking up at Bullock as she gets to her feet on dry land, a titan who has survived, everything about ‘Gravity’ screams cinema.
Of course it doesn’t have the weighty subtext of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, nor the popcorn operatics of Lucas’ ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’ and not the feminist agenda of Ursula S. Guin - but it doesn’t set out to do any of these things.
‘Gravity’ sets out to be a piece of pure cinema and in that it succeeds.