Have just come back after watching Gravity, the most amazing film I have ever seen. I must tell you that I have not seen Avatar nor the films based on the Harry Potter saga. I have not even watched Life of Pi. The Tolkein stories do not make any impression when seen on the big screen. I loved them as books and my children have immensely enjoyed my narration of the simple good versus evil tales.
I am also not fond of what film buffs call sci-fi and fantasy cinema, with its special effects and camera tricks that are so intriguing and beguiling. Somehow, despite all the high technology and the enormous amounts of money spent on creating mind-boggling sets, the narratives fail to rise above the mundane, and one is left wondering at what the creator of the film was trying to convey that could not have been said with simplicity. Most of the so-called hi-tech movies are modern versions of the old Westerns that were such a delight to watch when we were young. No amount of special effects that made Star Wars such a great success at the box office can make it a better or a more engaging film than Gunfight at the OK Corral or The Last Train from Gunhill. Hollywood has made a huge investment in studios, sets, and technology. To recover these investments the producers feel that they have to make films with special effects that can use this technology, and scripts are tweaked to include the use of mental pyrotechnics in order to keep the spectators on the edges of their seats. Blockbuster films like Avatar, Inception, Oblivion, and the Dark Knight saga exploit these techniques to the hilt. Their recognition all around the world, and the Academy and other international awards they routinely win, would seem to justify the investment that the industry has made in these technologies. But all the special effects and all the technology only add to the visual appeal of the cinema; it does nothing to the content. And that is why Gravity is such a different film.
It is difficult to imagine a Hollywood Director making a film using the most stunning visual effects, and yet having only two actors on the screen; or a film this vast in scope with a minimum of dialogue. In the hands of the Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron, who had earlier made a Harry Porter film, Gravity becomes a profoundly philosophical experience; an intense, emotionally exhausting journey into the universe that is unimaginably vast and incomprehensibly complex. The story is so simple that it can be written in just one page. No wonder actors like Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman and a number of Hollywood celebrities made themselves unavailable for the role of the leading lady. I can imagine them telling the Director that the script gave them no scope to display their histrionic talents, and that they would not like to waste their energies on such a project. Even the male lead played by George Clooney had been offered to Robert Downey Jr., the star of the new Sherlock Holmes films, but he too might have found the role too minimal for his star status and therefore, he discovered that he had “scheduling problems.” I understand the film did not get on the floors for four years because the technology required for it was still in the making. It was only after James Cameron’s Avatar that Cuaron felt confident that Hollywood had developed the right technology for transferring his narrative to the big screen.
Teaming up with his writer son Jonas Cuaron, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with whom he had earlier made the immensely successful Y Tu Mama Tambien, Alfonso Cuaron has created a masterpiece, a film that grips you from the first scene, shakes your every nerve, and leaves you physically and emotionally drained at the end. Sandra Bullock, playing a medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone, on her first space mission, is a devoted scientist who leaves her laboratory every evening and drives home to a meaningless existence outside that lab. George Clooney is Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut, on his last space mission as its commander. The two are performing a routine space walk while repairing some instrument aboard the Hubble space telescope when disaster strikes in the form of a Russian satellite disintegrating and crashing through space destroying other satellites, creating a veritable assault of space debris that crashes at astronomical speeds into whatever it encounters in its path. In the process the two astronauts get separated from their shuttle and are set adrift in the vastness of their surroundings. All the resources available are contained within their space suits, and with Oxygen levels dropping, their chances of survival are reduced to near zero.
How the two scientists cope with their predicament is the narrative of the 90 minutes of this stunning film that has perhaps the most wonderful visuals of the universe as seen from 600 Kms., above the earth. This, we must understand, is not a Discovery Channel documentary, but a human drama taking place not on terra firma but in an atmosphere of zero gravity, where there is no atmosphere to speak of. The film revolves round these two actors although we do hear the voices of the mission controllers and the third astronaut aboard the shuttle, who happens to have some connection with the Indian subcontinent, and who keeps singing the famous “mera joota hai japani” song from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420.
The film is shot in 3-D, which makes the viewer get totally involved in the action. In space, where there is no atmosphere to carry sound, and where silence is supreme, the Director has introduced a musical score that heightens the drama, and only science purists will cavil at this cinematic license. I am not sure how accurate the physics of the film is, but for an average, reasonably well educated viewer, it should not matter. The performance of Sandra Bullock, a late choice for the role, is undoubtedly her best till date, and I am sure the actors who passed this role must be ruing the fact. Bullock should easily win the Oscar for this performance of a lifetime. George Clooney has yielded top billing to his co-star, although his performance is no less commendable.
Gravity should be the hottest favourite to win a clutchful of Academy Awards this year and I cannot see any other film coming close to it in the race for the top ones, including all the technical awards. Overall, it is an extremely satisfying film that raises difficult questions about the limits of science in an infinite universe; and whether the laws of physics are the only tools required to resolve the riddles of existence; birth, death and the human response to intangibles like love, care and despair. It raises questions about the validity and the role of spirituality in a world governed by science.