Rebirth in Space – Gravity (2013) Review

Gravity Poster

Unable to put up with the hype any longer, my friend Brad and I went to see Gravity. Not wanting to miss out on the possibility of a unique experience, we coughed up the extra dough and went all-out for IMAX 3D, on the biggest IMAX in the UK no less! As well as being a thoroughly decent chap for accompanying me on this cinematic journey, Brad also earns the title of (first) ‘Guest Reviewer’, as he adds his review to this blog post. Without further ado, this is what we thought.

Kyle’s review

Space is a void that has fascinated mankind, and in turn film-makers, from the very beginning. Cinema has used space as a setting for films ever since the 1902 French movie, Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon), which contains the iconic shot of a rocket crashed into one of the eyes of the moon. It’s fascinating subject matter; a place that in universe-terms seems so close to us, and yet somehow still so far away above the sky that we see. Very few people ever experience space and it’s like another world to us. Gravity is the latest film to take place in space, orbiting just above the earth and like no other film before it, it draws us in to experience the events that befall a group of astronauts. Cuarón’s film is a fully immersive cinematic experience that brings us back to the big screen in a big way.

The plot, despite being set in the vastness of outer space, isn’t that big. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first mission, along with experienced astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last mission. They are servicing the Hubble Telescope when they hear that a Russian satellite has been accidentally blown up and has sent space wreckage hurtling their way. They need to get to safety, but the situation quickly escalates from bad to worse. This is a very personal story that deals intimately with the plight of the astronauts and their fight for survival in the most inhospitable environment known to man. This closeness to the icy grip of space, only just beyond the astronauts helmets, adds to the tension; you feel like they are in danger most of the time and air is at a premium. The action set-pieces are frantic and punctuated superbly by the score composed by Steven Price. I expected the tension to last the entirety of the film but was surprised when Gravity allowed moments of calm before the next onslaught of misfortune. This is definitely a thriller, but I wasn’t gripping my seat the entire time.

Kowalski (Clooney) hangs in.

Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) hangs in.

This is much to the film’s advantage though, because it is in these moments where we get a chance to marvel at the stunning and often strikingly beautiful cinematography. The latest technology is on display here as Cuarón masterfully frees the camera into weightlessness allowing us to float along with the protagonists. The opening shot of the film is so brilliant and immersive that it’s easy to not even notice the technicality behind it. So mesmerised are we with our first lofty view of planet Earth that you barely notice as a shuttle slowly sails into view, and in one seamless shot we are taken from far away to right up close with the characters, gliding around them to get our bearings. The gorgeous visuals are aided by the 3D, I feel for the first time being used to its full potential. Cuarón has seen the third dimension not as a gimmick to poke objects out of the screen, but as a tool to create a believable sense of depth. I think Gravity is the most apt subject matter for 3D; combining with the weightless floaty behaviour of the camera, spacial relations are developed – you immediately get where things are. The first-person shots, although much maligned by some people, are some of my favourites. This is the closest I will ever come to being in space and I didn’t even leave the ground.

Sandra Bullock is given the greatest chance to shine in Gravity, as we follow her character for the majority of the film. Her performance is both emotional and physical and while I didn’t feel instantly connected to her, during the aftermath of one action sequence where she reassesses her situation, I was suddenly hooked and invested until the end. With palpable fear, her heavy breathing is enough to ratchet up the tension but not enough to irritate. Clooney is perhaps a little too comedic and blasé but I think he is there to anchor Bullock’s nervy Dr. Stone.

Dr. Ryan Stone attempts to escape her dire situation.

Dr. Ryan Stone attempts to escape her dire situation.

Unsurprisingly enough, my lasting impression of Gravity is the visuals, and in all fairness they dominate the entire production turning it into a cinematic experience (honestly, you need to see this in the cinema). I also like the use of imagery to convey themes of struggle, evolution, and rebirth. Nowhere is this better shown than when Dr. Ryan Stone, aboard the ISS, curls into the foetal position in zero-g, reminding me of the Star-Child of 2001: A Space Odyssey floating above the Earth. Stanley Kubrick’s space epic broke cinematic ground back in its day, and Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity does much the same today. An incredible step forward and an incredible film.

‘Guest Reviewer’ Brad’s review

Gravity is a film with many interesting parts, whose whole is more than the sum of its parts. It has great action sequences with a semi-twist; in most action films the characters can fight back, but there isn’t much you can do to combat empty (or not so empty) space. The 3D is really good and whenever it is used obviously, it is to great effect, especially in one memorable scene where you feel like your eyes are being assaulted by space debris. What changed the film from a good one to a great one was some of the other scenes. I think these sections of the film were very well done and helped you identify with the main characters. The scene that stuck with me the most was the one where Ryan (Sandra Bullock) is trying to get in radio contact with another space station, and only finds a random Russian messing around with the radio. The way she reacts is in my opinion, the way a real person would (often this isn’t the case with action films). There are other scenes where the pace changes and you get a chance to get your breath back, or just sit back and reflect on what has passed, another thing that really adds to the film.

I have just two negative things to mention. The first is this; most of the problems that the characters have to deal with don’t come as a surprise, in fact you’re usually told/see what the next issue will be. The second is George Clooney’s character – Matt. He isn’t bad, but never before has anyone been so calm and seemingly happy in a situation like this. It would have been nice to see a bit more emotion from Clooney; Bullock’s character certainly doesn’t suffer from this problem.

Finally, onto the ending. Often I am disappointed by the endings in films; most have too many and either fit into the “everyone lived happily ever after” or “see the sequel” categories. Fortunately Gravity doesn’t suffer from this issue. Does it have an amazing ending? I’m not sure. However, what I am sure about is that it doesn’t have a bad ending and it feels satisfactory.

Kaiju Pugilism – Pacific Rim (2013) Review

Pacific Rim poster

Often it helps to be well-informed before watching a film. Most of the time it’s good to know what you’re letting yourself in for, otherwise nasty shocks or mind-numbing tedium could follow. Pacific Rim, doesn’t give too much away in its title but it’d be hard to mistake the film’s intentions after watching the trailer. It said to me, ‘colossal, metal, building-sized action-figures piloted by humans fight equally large monsters’, and the 10 year-old inside me went all giddy with excitement. With this in mind I never expected Pacific Rim to deliver more than a gigantic action spectacle with incredible visuals, and it certainly lived up to that.

The set-up for Pacific Rim is established succinctly in an opening montage documenting the first Kaiju (that’s monster to you and me) attack and the subsequent response by humanity to create massive battle robots known as Jaegers to combat them. Everything goes well until Kaiju attacks increase and humanity is on its last legs. Marshall Staker Pentecost (Idris Elba) rounds up the surviving Jaegers and pilots in a last-ditch attempt to stop the Kaiju once and for all. It’s standard blockbuster fare, but well-crafted even if some of the dialogue errs on the cheesy side. Screenwriter Travis Beacham embraces the science-fiction elements in a way that is entirely light and playful. Here’s a rough explanation of Jaeger-tech;

The neural load of piloting a gigantic Jaeger is too much for one pilot to sustain, therefore two pilots are linked together with a neural handshake. The pilots mind-meld and share memories in ‘the drift’ thus enabling them to perform the same actions.

“Huh?”, I hear you ask, well that’s exactly the point. Rather than worry about any scientific inaccuracies, the writers have gone for imaginative science. It sounds cool and it fills in the explanation gaps with a flourish. On the subject of cool-sounding names, the main Jaegers are Gipsy Danger, Crimson Typhoon, Striker Eureka, and Cherno Alpha. They must have had a ball coming up with those, and there’s more where they came from…

The characters chosen to populate this very near future war are generic at best, but again I think they are drawn as such to keep things on the lighter side. The story is end-of-the-world stuff but by no means dark. For example, the scientists Dr. Geiszler and Dr. Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) are primarily there for some sciency chat and humourous bickering. For all you del Toro regulars, Ron Perlman also makes an appearance in top scene-stealing form. The stereotypical nature of the cast emphasises the theme of human unity and a certain togetherness that only apocalypses seem to produce; there’s Australians, Americans, Russians, Chinese, Japanese and even a German. One interesting moment of character development comes when Raleigh Becket (a frankly terrible Charlie Hunnam) steps into Mako Mori’s (Rinko Kikuchi) memories, and it’s possibly the best scene in the whole movie.

That scene and the rest of the film benefits from director Guillermo del Toro’s ability to create eye-catching worlds. The detail is impressive and I really appreciate the lengths that del Toro went to use practical effects. In fact, each Jaeger cockpit was a fully moving set where the actors were strapped in and shaken around to get a realistic performance. They were also drenched with water too – tough gig. Speaking of the Jaegers, and their Kaiju opponents, they all display fantastic creativity and variation in their design. If anything, I want a sequel just so I can feast my eyes on more elaborately crafted Jaegers. Del Toro is a master of getting his vivid imagination onto the screen – you can see it in the Hellboy films and I’m not surprised that Peter Jackson initially chose him to direct The Hobbit films.

If the majority of Pacific Rim stems from Guillermo del Toro, then it is a sincere love-letter to the original run of monster movies that was started way back in 1954 with Godzilla, produced by Toho and directed by Ishirō Honda. It pays tribute to these old classics while standing apart to delight a whole new generation in the monster movie genre. As someone who enjoyed the 90s Godzilla remake as a kid and watched Godzilla: The Series, Pacific Rim was a rollicking good time for me and I would like to give Guillermo del Toro a firm neural handshake to convey my thanks.

As an added extra, here is the trailer for Pacific Rim, in classic Toho style: