I’ve watched with increasing bewilderment and growing horror as Gravity has started to outshine 12 Years a Slave at the endless bacchanalias of awards season.
I saw Gravity in 3-D, you see, and I didn’t want to see Gravity at all… I regard Alfonso Cuaron’s Harry Potter instalment as the most soulful of the trilogy, but I find it hard to think of Children of Men as anything other than a film concerned with its own shooting style above all else. Gravity, as a ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’, seemed bound to ramp up that element of his work to the obliteration of emotional depth. But I knew that if I skipped Gravity in cinemas, and then said it wasn’t very good, after watching it on a 2-D small screen, I’d be hopped on by a certain type of critic for not having seen it in 3-D, and therefore not being entitled to deliver any valid judgement on it. If you were told there was a great play on in the West End, and you said you’d catch it when it came to the Grand Canal Theatre, only to be told that no, it wouldn’t be great then, you had to see it in the original West End production to get its true greatness – you’d have to reply that it couldn’t be a great play then, merely a great originating cast perhaps, but not something that you should get excited about as a play on a historical level of epic greatness. And yet, isn’t that exactly what the reception of Gravity is all about? If you don’t see it in cinemas, you miss the ‘groundbreaking 3-D spectacle’. But realistically most people, over the course of Gravity’s lifetime of being seen, will not see it as it was intended to be seen – for an exorbitant ticket price in a cinema. And if it doesn’t stand up outside of that original format, then it doesn’t stand up at all.
And it doesn’t stand up… I am mystified by the critical valorisation of what is a profoundly empty FX film. It’s as if a portion of Sunshine were taken by itself and blown into a full movie, but with poorer actors – Sandra Bullock is not the world’s most expressive actress if you’re casting for a one-woman show. Her presence highlights that Gravity, despite the critical cachet of its director, is really not that far removed from Roland Emmerich’s most cornball moments. Bullock with luck that would break Vegas survives two catastrophic space disasters, self-generates an improbable House epiphany, and manages to cling to a vessel as it begins re-entry, after she, without any ill effects, opened the door to the space station with an explosive rush that should have either catapulted her into space or broken her wrist. And the script is not salvaged by its visualisation: the sequence inside the space station possess a ghastly unreality as everything around Bullock looks CGI, while the 3-D only truly impresses when it cheats – Cuaron throws splintering pieces of space station at the camera and all over the world audiences jump, because those splinters literally appear from nowhere instead of arriving from an observable flight-path. And needless to say Gravity does not, as has been claimed, replicate in its direction a camera free-floating in space. The camera always artfully ends up at just the right place to observe big moments, rather than weightlessly freewheeling through another badly timed glimpse of the cosmos.
Children of Men had a large degree of practical difficulty in its trademark long-takes of action sequences, even with the helpful aid of CGI compositing of separate shots together. But the idea that Gravity deserves laudatory and exceptional praise for its camerawork, and its 13 minute unbroken opening shot in particular, is nothing other than praise for a veritable vestigial limb of critical reactions to film-making. What exactly are we meant to be praising? Long takes were a hallmark of greatness because they were practically difficult to pull off and therefore a sign of audacity, ambition, and tremendous determination by directors like Welles, Hitchcock, and Godard who achieved them. Spielberg pulled off a wildly OTT action sequence in Tintin, in one long take, but even as you watched it, nodding your head at its ‘ingenuity’, you realised its meaninglessness – there was no difficulty to be overcome: an animated character was not about to forget his lines, neither was an animated background about to suffer an annoying change of lighting from a passing cloud. Cuaron can spend all day shooting the same long-take green-screen sequence without ever reloading film, why should he be given a medal for doing what’s now easy?
I’m annoyed by Gravity, because I feel I was mugged for my money, purely to have the sort of empty experience I feared it would be – but empty in 3-D.