"Clear skies with a chance of satellite debris..."
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock)
During a routine spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, a Russian missile strike on one of their defunct satellites results in a chain reaction of destruction, hurtling debris at high speed towards the team at work. The debris strikes at deadly speed, killing all but veteran commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). With the Explorer shuttle damage damaged beyond use, the two survivors drift aimlessly in space - desperately working out an escape back to Earth before the debris completes orbit and threatens them again…
There are no two ways about it… Gravity is the finest film Hollywood has produced this year, perhaps even in the past decade. Veteran Sci-Fi legends such as director James Cameron have stated that Gravity is the finest space movie ever made - a quote that has made movie marketing teams go gaga on the posters. And they are not wrong. It is a real breath of fresh air when a big movie lives up to its hype and then some. Gravity has everything you could want from a big studio blockbuster - action, despair, hope, fear. But key to its success is it is not just another movie… It is an experience. And an experience that only the magic of the cinema can offer.
From the very first frame to the last, Gravity is cinematic spectacle at its most beautiful and powerful. Director Alfonso Cuarón uses long, languid shots as we see our protagonists working on the Hubble telescope - perfectly capturing the eerie calm and tranquility of outer space. The camera glides effortlessly from expansive global vista to intimate point of view from inside the character's spacesuit. In fact the camera doesn't cut until the catastrophic disaster has struck - an explosive spectacle in ominous silence (bar the screaming panic of the characters and the fantastic score by Steven Price). Cuarón has form in this arena - his one-shot action set piece within the confines of a car in Children Of Men springs to mind. But here, he marries the smooth glides of the camera with the apoplectic space disaster to maximum effect. The flawless visual effects place you right at the heart of the action and you will find yourself gripping your armrests throughout the 90-minute running time. Not only this, but here is a film maker who actually uses the 3D format as a proper narrative tool. Only fellow maestros Any Lee and Martin Scorsese, in my humble opinion, have come close to using 3D to enhance the story so well. It is difficult to write this, as I am an anti-3D campaigner - but Gravity fuels me with quiet hope that other film makers will actually sit up and take note of how to properly use the technique and not just have blurry things jut out of the screen for supposed effect.
Gravity has all the visual hoopla that one expects to draw the audiences in to see it, but Cuarón and his co-writer Jonás (his son) know that key to keeping the audiences in their seats is character. And together, by keeping the narrative focus on character as opposed to visual effects, they ensure that audiences feel every threat, every danger and every emotion with their leads. The casting is perfect. Clooney is charming, charismatic and wholly convincing as the old space-dog Kowalski - he stays calm under pressure and helps his fellow survivor (and his audience) to focus and stay positive in what looks to be certain annihilation in the upper atmosphere. But this is Sandra Bullock's movie - her terrified medical engineer Ryan Stone is our emotional focus… We feel her fear, we feel her despair. And Bullock has never been better - all bets are off on Best Actress at the Oscars this year. A grieving mother escaping to space to escape her pain on Earth, her grit and determination in the face of death offer a metaphorical re-birth - turning despair and sorrow into hope. Bullock takes dialogue that in lesser hands would reek of cheese and turns it into heartfelt emotion. There are also some lovely little nods to previous space odysseys - with Ed "Apollo 13" Harris as the voice of Houston Mission Control as one of the best.
Perhaps Gravity will lose some of its spectacle when released for home on Blu-Ray and download - how could it not? Despite the advances of modern technology for home cinema systems, it is nigh-on impossible to fully re-create the vast epic scale that only the big screen can offer. And yet the film will succeed - because the film makers remind you that at the very heart of the movie is a very human story… A story of survival, of standing tall against the odds and the chance to be re-born. And what more can you ask for when you go to the movies?
Epic in scale, heartfelt in emotion… Gravity puts nearly all other blockbuster Hollywood movies to shame. Alfonso Cuarón shows others exactly what can be achieved when good old fashioned story telling is married perfectly to cutting-edge film making technology. And with career-best performances from Clooney and especially Bullock, this is one movie you cannot afford to miss. Start taking bets now - Gravity is going to sweep the boards when awards season arrives!
"There is nothing more relaxing than knowing that the world is crazier than you are."
Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård)
Thousands of years ago, a race of creatures known as the Dark Elves attempted to plunge the Nine Realms of the Universe into an eternal darkness using the Aether - an indestructible weapon of immense power. The warriors of Asgard, led by their mighty king Bor, defeated the Dark Elves in war, forcing their leader Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) to sacrifice his own kind and flee in disgrace… Now, as the Nine Realms align in the heavens and the Aether is accidentally discovered by Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), the vengeful Malekith returns to realize his evil mission - this time bringing the war to Midgard (Earth). Standing in his way- Bor's son Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and his heir, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) …
Marvel's Phase II in their movie universe mission began earlier this year with Shane Black's Iron Man 3 - Robert Downey Jr.'s finest outing as ol' Shellhead so far. The focus now turns to the other Avengers and first up is our favorite son of Asgard, Thor. Noted TV director Alan Taylor takes up the chair left vacant by Kenneth Branagh to continue the adventures of the God of Thunder and produces a fine, rip-roaring fantasy adventure that showcases all the strengths that Marvel has brought to the big screen - big action set pieces, self-depreciating humor and a genuine sense of fun that some can argue is largely missing in the output from their main rival DC Studios.
Branagh's foray into the superhero genre was something of a gamble for the former RSC thespian - it was certainly the largest budget that he had taken control of and the weight of expectation was high. It was also something of a gamble for Marvel studios as well - the stories of Gods and monsters from other realms posed a dizzying level of high concept that even comic fans might not take seriously. And yet it was a masterstroke from both - Branagh brought a Shakespearean element to the family battles between Thor, his father Odin and his mischievous brother Loki, while earthbound adventures mixed blockbuster action with campy humor that made the film approachable for both fans and non-fans of the comic books. Such was the success of the film and the ensemble movie The Avengers/Avengers Assemble (depending on your country of origin) that it would be a brave man to tackle the continuing adventure of Thor and the boys. Thankfully Taylor is up to the task - his previous form on Game of Thrones makes the decision to put him in the director's chair a no-brainer.
Of course the actors are now very well acquainted with their characters that it feels like they are simply slipping back into a comfy pair of shoes, or gold armored war boots - whatever's your preference. Chris Hemsworth continues to show charm, charisma and his marble-chiseled physique as the God of Thunder and makes you believe in his Demi-god status amongst his cohorts. Anthony Hopkins is suitably regal as Odin, yet also brings a degree of weakness to the great King of Asgard. It is his stubbornness and single-minded bloodiness in his convictions that spark the clashes between man and son this time around, and Taylor and his scriptwriters keep the film's emotional center focused on the relationship between Odin and Thor. Natalie Portman's Jane Foster remains the best of the Marvel love interests - no room for any damsel-in-distress dawdling with Jane, just a need to be rescued on occasion as she works to help her love in his fight to save the universe. And one cannot forget about everyone's favorite Marvel villain, Loki. Tom Hiddleston virtually stole the first film for many movie-goers, and here he excels as the now-outcast God of Mischief, imprisoned by his adopted father in disgrace. And yet, in his relationship with his adoptive mother Frigga, Hiddleston layers Loki with even more complexity than before, and we the audience love him all the more for it.
With all of these established elements in place, Taylor doesn't really need to do that much. The returning cast members know their characters so well that he simply has to guide them through the plot details. In the action stakes, Taylor continues the mix of exploding fisticuffs mixed with self-depreciating humor. In fact it is fair to say that there really isn't more for Taylor to do but to keep the plates spinning. Perhaps this is a negative for some who are looking for a more specific directorial stamp on the film. Yes, some of the godly sheen has been removed from the visions of Asgard and some of the more campy qualities to the characters is more dialed down, but Taylor demonstrates an admirable restraint from shying away from a successful formula.
There are some negatives, however, that are to be pointed out. The main antagonist this time around is a lot more straight laced in out-and-out villainy stakes. Christopher Eccleston bravely tries to add some layers to his malevolent Elven warlord Malekith, but the character is rather single-minded and flat when compared to the twisty, alliance-shifting modus operandi of Loki in the first movie. Some of our returning characters also find themselves with little to do - it would have been good to see a return of the Warriors Three to the battlefields, while the rumors that suggested we would be treated to some more of Idris Elba's gatekeeper Heimdall proved rather fruitless. And a potentially interesting love triangle between Thor, Jane and Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) suggested near the beginning of the film is left frustratingly behind as the action takes over. However, what we do have is another successful action adventure from Marvel studios, who continue to lead the pack when it comes to blockbuster superhero action. Marvel and DC have now drawn the line to distinguish the differences in their approaches to the genre and for superhero fans, the possibilities are staggering.
Quibbles aside, Thor: The Dark World continues the interstellar adventures of the Norse God of Thunder. Set your dial to high camp and revel in the explosive action, the tongue-in-cheek humor and the joy of watching a man with a cosmic hammer smash stuff into the stratosphere.