A movie for every day of the year – a good one
Sputnik 2 falls from orbit, 1958
On this day in 1958, the second satellite to be launched into Earth orbit, Sputnik 2, fell back to earth. It had been launched on 3 November 1957 and was carrying Laika, a samoyed terrier cross chosen for her good nature – the first animal launched into space. Sputnik 2 carried enough food, water and air to keep Laika alive for ten days, but because of a malfunction, the temperature inside Sputnik 2 got too high (104ºF/40ºC) and Laika died after a few hours into the mission, from heat and stress. If she had not died one version of events suggests she would have been euthanised before Sputnik began its re-entry into the atmosphere. Another is that she would simply have fried along with the capsule. Images of Laika in orbit are undoubtedly faked, or taken from later missions, since Sputnik 2 had no camera on board.
Gravity (2013, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)
About a third of the way into Gravity – a film about an astronaut struggling for survival after a space walk goes awry – Sandra Bullock, our plucky spacewoman, picks up a fire extinguisher and gives it a parp to put out a fire. She is instantly blasted backwards. Newton’s third law of motion – any action has an equal and opposite reaction – has been demonstrated. Earlier we have seen thrilling, brilliant demonstrations of the first law (an object keeps moving unless something stops it), and his second (it’s harder to stop a heavy moving object than a light one). And we’ll go on seeing Newton’s laws demonstrated again and again, right up to the very last shot of the film (no spoilers), when the film’s title comes up in big letters – GRAVITY – to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
If that sounds boring – a film about physics – then you’re probably a dullard and you certainly haven’t seen Gravity, which must be the best sci-fi film of all time, or in the reckoning at least. The opening sequence – Bullock out in space nervous, George Clooney reassuring her with his Gorgeous George voice – is a piece of conceptual, special-effects genius, put together with total skill so that everything from the camera to the script to the intelligent, largely orchestra-free soundtrack combines first to lock us firmly into the time, the place and the situation, and then to keep us there, with the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot, because this is also a very plot driven film too, with almost every “crucial next move” being a life and death one, apart from the couple of breathers that director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón gives us. Basically, Gravity is like that bit in a film where someone is hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, extended to feature length.
As a piece of kinetic cinema Gravity is close to perfect in every way. The production design catches that inky black/blinding white space look that no one since Stanley Kubrick seems to have been too bothered with. Then there’s Bullock, in Tom Hanks mode as the everyperson thrust into extraordinary peril. And Mr Clooney, whose “coffeetime George” shtick seems to be a furball to some people’s enjoyment, is also bang on the money – he’s meant to be a highly experienced and slightly smug senior officer (not uncoincidentally male) and what Cuarón does with the expectations that this sort of persona generates is another masterstroke.
Talking of expectations, Cuarón again manages these brilliantly in the odd scene where Bullock goes into “hokey existential” mode – the “I wish I’d been a better person” stuff which so often features in films like this. Again, just as you’re setting the viewing controls to autopilot while this naffness plays itself out, Cuarón pulls the rug out from under the feet. And you can have that mixed metaphor for free.
OK, OK, so nothing can be that perfect. Objections? Let’s just say that you might be thinking, by about the third time that Bullock has avoided being blasted off into oblivion, that she’s been extraordinarily lucky. You might also start wondering just why there are so many American films about blameless individuals removed from any social and political context, embattled, fighting the entire hostile universe (Robert Redford is currently doing something similar on a boat in All Is Lost). You might balk at some of the Kubrick references – Bullock being shot as some sort of “star child”, a bright ring of light around her, almost translucent skin, innocent, only the thumb-sucking missing. None of it bothered me because none of it slowed down the film, which has decided that what the film is “about” must take second place to what it is, a riveting adventure told at breakneck speed whose intention is to put your heart in your mouth and keep it there. Job done.
- Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative breathtaking cinematography
- Steven Price’s score – thrilling yet different
- The winner of seven Oscars – the right seven too
- The nods to SFX guru Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters)
© Steve Morrissey 2014