I have been meaning to write this blog for quite some time now and it may have lost some of its effectiveness with this delayed release. I recently saw Gravity and was blown away by the visual spectacle of the film. Everything about the film was technically brilliant, the sound design, the cinematography, the CGI, the lighting, everything. This of course left a great feeling of appreciation when the credits began to roll. It has been a while that I have seen a film at the cinema whereby all elements of the film have surpassed my expectations.
However, as much I love the post film sense of amazement at what I have just watched, I am sceptical of it. This is simply because a few days later I start to pick holes in the film and find that on its second viewing the film is nowhere near as good as I remembered it to be. This reflection time is critical when thinking about reviewing films, and I often find it bizarre that some film critics (namely the lesser experienced ones) will simply write a review straight after watching the film. Nonetheless this blog isn’t a film review on Gravity, but more what the film made me think about during this time of reflection.
I still believe that my initial awe with the film was justified and haven’t really been able to pick too many holes with it since. I praised Gravity on facebook and a few friends said that they didn’t really like it; they thought that visually it was stunning, but they felt that something was lacking in the story that drove the film. Now most of my friends like mainstream films and aren’t known for appreciating independent or character driven narratives, however these friends where people I could hold conversations with about film conventions, so this got me thinking. I was worried that I was swept up in the visuals to overlook some narrative elements that were maybe weak or could have maybe happened differently. Ultimately I have become reassured and stuck by my guns following a thought process about single character films.
Gravity is film which focuses on Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), and that’s all. Now lots of films have a single main character, however they also have many sub characters to help piece together the story and character development. Gravity does have Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as a sub character, however he only features in the film for a small length of time. Instead the running time pretty much exclusively sticks to Stone and her struggle with being stuck in space. I find films that focus on one single character to be a true feat in script writing. It can’t be a narrative driven film, simply because how could a single person drive a narrative (or at least an interesting narrative), so it must really be a character driven film. Of course during a character driven film, the character must realise flaws about themselves and move past this; grow to become a better/worse person. However a single character film doesn’t do this, or at least doesn’t exclusively do this.
How can a character discover their faults when they are pretty much they only person in the film? It would seem far too staged to simply have a sub character appear for the main character to discover they’re faults so they can work through them during the running time of the film. So instead during these single character led films they are thrust into a unbelievable situation which seems impossible to get through. Buried follows Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) being kept hostage in a coffin, buried alive. The whole film, like Gravity, is kept within this space (no pun intended there). You never leave the coffin. There are no flashbacks, or cut away to show peoples’ attempts at finding him. It is a very claustrophobic film because of this. However, Conroy does communicate to others through a mobile phone which has been left with him, therefore sub characters can emerge through this, though they are kept to a minimum, similarly to Kowalski and the Inuit through a comms radio in Gravity.
Due to these exceptional circumstances that drives the narrative, the technical capabilities of the film have to be high. In Buried they had to ensure the illusion of Conroy being stuck in a coffin existed; filming tight shots, always framing some of the coffin in the background (they actually filmed using seven different coffins for different angles). Lighting the film was also difficult; the only light source in this coffin was the mobile phone light, a glow stick and a lighter. All of these things give off little light for a camera to pick up. Similarly in Gravity a completely new lighting unit was built to mimic the sun’s light in space as it is not distorted through the atmosphere like on Earth, as well as showing the light which reflects from the Earth which varies greatly in colour temperature depending on where you are positioned over the Earth (people have praised the attention to detail in digitally layering the reflection of the Earth in Bullock’s eyes, when this was actually the reflection of the lighting unit they built for the film, demonstrating the complexity and detail used in creating it).
As mentioned before, films that follows this format of having a single character running the whole show, means that they need someone who can fill the role. The performance would have to be demanding in two key respects. Firstly the character itself will go through emotional turmoil of some kind. There is simply no way anyone would want to watch a single character for 90 mins if they don’t through some form of emotional breakdown in relation to the predicament they are in. Now I’m not saying everyone is a sadist, more so that it wouldn’t seem realistic to be stuck in these situations which single character films often follow and not have a breakdown of some kind. Secondly, the physically demanding attributes of the actual shoot. Bullock was in a suspension rig, with multiple people controlling her limb movements to re-create zero-gravity environments, likewise Reyonlds was confined to a coffin for the duration of filming for Buried.
I greatly enjoy single character driven films, mainly because I feel both the screenwriter and actor really push through their creative potential and give their all. It doesn’t seem like any old film that would be on in the multiplexes on a regular basis. This creates a more personal touch to the film; obviously only having a single character on the screen would allow the audience to feel more emotionally connected to who is on screen, but it also feels like somebody’s baby (in a metaphoric sense), as this project has been nurtured through production and kept its vision, not being compromised by adding typical conventions to convey plot develops easier.
So I shall end there, but first I must urge you all to see Gravity if you can. Sure there are some problems with the film, but its impact was powerful and I can only agree with what a friend said after having watched it “man that was intense, it makes me never want to go to space”.