What is cinema for? That is the question one must consider when approaching a film like Gravity which has become one of the most-hyped films of 2013 by fans and critics alike.
If we say cinema is merely a story-telling medium, then there is little to differentiate it from literature. The nuts and bolts of any story told on the big screen can be just as well told on the black and white pages of a book.
No, films do not exist merely to tell stories, and Gravity, which would not work anywhere near as well written down, goes a long way to proving this.
Instead cinema, at its best, creates and recreates experiences that we can feel a part of. Whether that is our first trip to Jurassic Park, a visit to Galaxies Far, Far Away, or a night in the seemingly quiet Bates Motel.
Gravity then is an experience, rather than simply a story. As we follow Sandra Bullock’s struggle to survive, it feels just like a roller-coaster, only without the relative safety of any tracks to guide us. It is also a film one can literally describe as ‘gripping’, since there were times the whole audience could not help but hold onto their seat for dear life in response to what was happening before them.
The story of Gravity, for what it matters, concerns rookie Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as she and veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) carry out some routine repairs outside their ship. Disaster strikes when some space debris hurtles towards them destroying their shuttle and communications, meaning they must quickly find some alternative means to get home.
2013: A Space Odyssey would be the obvious alternative title for Cuarón’s latest film, as it is clearly influenced by Kubrick’s depiction of the loneliness, silence, and sterility of outer space. Both Gravity and 2001 also have that sense of being alone in the empty sea, and the wonderful and frightening things that can do to one’s mind (cf. Life of Pi or Castaway).
Despite these similarities to other films, there is still something unique about this film. In particular the physicality of the film is unlike anything I have ever seen before. This is a physics-geek’s heaven, as Newton’s Laws of Motion are played with again and again in this zero-gravity playground.
It is a film which begs to be seen in 3-D since it literally makes use of every dimension of the screen. Much as we hate to admit it, our movement on earth is largely limited to two dimensions, longitude and latitude. Up and down are out with our natural reach, and so it is with most movie characters. Not so in space, and Cuaron wisely makes us of every possible camera angle to make us aware of the different rules that exists only a hundred miles from where each of us are sitting.
And so Gravity is not a film about its plot or its characters, both are which are good without being spectacular. Much like the concept the film is named after, it is something that one has to ‘feel’ to understand.