SEAT AT THE BACK - SCRIBBLES! ~ Films on the Seat at the Back playlist right now: KIDS IN LOVE; JUNE; CURVE; WILD, BARELY LETHAL; GODDESS OF LOVE; THE VATICAN TAPES .. What a night in!

Monday, 3 March 2014

Floating Voters! ~ a 'live' review of the Oscar nominated 2013 sci-fi movie 'Gravity', on the night of the 86th Academy Awards . . .

*some astronautical spoilers float below ~ watch before reading! *

02/ 03/ 2014, 4pm . . .

It’s the afternoon (in the UK) of the 2014 Oscars, only eight hours to go until we find out, in the early hours of the morning (caffeine-shots lined up and primed) which films have won the coveted golden statue of cinematic excellence. Though it’s hardly the viewer’s choice awards and the films are voted for by those mostly unnamed industry insiders from the secrecy (probably) of their bedroom laptops, it still matters to most film buffs which movies are winners - and which are the missing-outers.

We all promise ourselves we will watch the nominated films in the months ahead - and then end up watching a couple. In those months ahead, after the red carpet has been rolled up and recycled for next year - most nominated films seem bizarrely out-of-date; as if the Oscar nomination has date-stamped their longevity. And there’s nothing more dating than being among the contenders in ‘last year’s awards’ – especially if you didn’t win. But being nominated on the night and being one of the films with all the attention on YOU, is probably worth the risk of a comedown, a backlash or a fall from grace. If nothing else, your film will be remembered forever with the following observation among movie-nighters everywhere: “Let’s watch ARGO; it’s an Oscar winner.” / “Nah, how about PREDATOR, it’s on ITV later.”


Oscars have unlimited ad breaks and the build-up lasts longer than a screening of a Lars Von Trier movie about Nymphomania. It’s not so bad if you live in the US and get to watch the Oscars live at a reasonable evening hour. In the UK, we get hours of red carpet arrival footage - probably because that’s what most film fans will only get to see live before they fall asleep at 3am, a couple of minutes short of finding out who wins the award for best director this year. Sure we can record it, or watch the repeat the next evening or the highlights on breakfast telly – but all award ceremonies lose that certain edge and excitement as soon as they are no longer ‘live’ (even though we know all the live awards have a few seconds delay, just so we don’t see the likes of Sigourney Weaver* stumble down the stairs in her posh frock and revealing that white underwear she wore from Marks and Spencer at the end of ALIEN – our loss, not theirs).

More likely to be Jennifer Lawrence, who tripped on the stairs at last year's ceremony!

GRAVITY is up for the 2014 Academy Awards of: Best Picture, Actress (Sandra Bullock), Cinematography, Director (Alfonso Cuarón), Film Editing, Original Score, Sound Editing/ Mixing and Visual Effects. I’ll update this review (of sorts) at the end, on the night – with the awards that GRAVITY wins (this space will be blank if it doesn’t win any). Yes – for the purpose of a review I’ll be staying up most of the night. Unless, of course – I sink under the weight of nachos or overfill with red wine; enough to make gravity seem entirely possible to attempt re-entry within at 3am in the morning. And if that brings back memories of the smutty wit of MOONRAKER, I’m deeply sorry …

Minister of Defence: "My God, what's Bond doing?"
Q: "I think he's attempting re-entry, sir."


Ah, MOONRAKER! The James Bond movie that took Roger Moore and Jaws (the villain, not the shark) up into space (along with Lois Chiles as Dr Goodhead – one of most scientifically promising surnames in the history of the Bond movies). Bond took Dr Goodhead into space with him, but Jaws (Richard Kiel) went a step further and took a petite blonde French girl with pigtails up in space with him in possibly the strangest fate ever for a killer villain with a heart (and teeth) of steel. Still, it helped that Dolly (Blanche Ravalec)was utterly gorgeous.


Bond, at the end of MOONRAKER, actually attempted re-entry and the same thing had been done before in an adult movie of the third kind - The URANUS EXPERIMENT (1999) with zero gravity sex filmed using NASA training equipment. The benefits of weightless nooky had already been explored by literary science fiction master Isaac Asimov in RENDEZVOUS WITH RAMA (1972) and The URANUS EXPERIMENT had similar literary aspirations, winning a Nebula Award for outstanding work of fiction in the fantasy and sci-fi genre. Or in the case of THE URANUS EXPERIMENT - ‘upstanding work in the missionary position’. The film had the tagline (one that mimicked 1979 sci-fi classic ALIEN's 'In Space No One Can Hear You Scream' tag) of 'In Space No One Can Hear You . .' Well, you can guess the rest!

GRAVITY also explores 'sensations' in space – those of sheer terror. There’s a plot of sorts here; some personal background to the two-hander cast of astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and it focuses mainly on Stone’s mourning for her daughter who died in a playground accident back on Earth - and how she has as good as given up on life herself (before eventually; maybe, finding some reason to survive, while floating towards a certain doom in the vastness of space and having less chance of surviving than a spider crossing the M23 while blindfolded – but hey; it’s the thought that counts!).

Space debris from an explosion on a Russian space station has caused a knock-on effect on others orbiting the Earth – especially for astronauts Stone and Kowalski who are on a spacewalk around their space shuttle, making a few repairs to the ship’s hull, and who lose their lifelines, as the rest of their crew lose their lives. This mismatched duo spend the rest of the movie freefloating from one attempt to another to board nearby abandoned space stations in the hope of getting back home to Earth; a bit like space leapfrog.

Sandra Bullock is excellent in the role of astronaut Ryan Stone, floating away from the real-life traumas back on Earth and Clooney also impresses as her dependable superior (although a scene where he knocks on the window of a space station and asks to be let in – is just silly).

The effects work is hard-earned and the cast were spun around in the studio on wires and levers to achieve realistic weightlessness. GRAVITY is an event movie; it starts with a weightless disaster in space and never lets go – in 3D, on a big screen; we spin around helpless in space along with this crew and the effect is breathtaking; enough to hyperventilate and require an oxygen mask just to get through.

The use of sound, or the lack of – of silent explosions and rise of cacophonic soundtrack to sudden, abrupt silence is a trick that works; genuinely highlighting the unnerving silence of space (although the effect is used a few times too many and becomes a little too familiar – a bit like the moment of waiting for THE INCREDIBLE HULK to appear a certain number of times every episode in the 70s TV series or how many heads explode in the SCANNERS movies).

The descent to Earth in the films closing sequences are about as exciting as the human pulse can take; it's great stuff - although the opening sequence where the astronauts spin out of control is the closest a movie gets to being the scariest ride at an amusement park; the one most of us will never go on but like to watch others go on, and look terrified. GRAVITY is that ride.

A similar movie, from 1969 – MAROONED is an early incarnation of GRAVITY. Starring Gregory Peck and Gene Hackman, the film is a languid wait to be rescued by NASA on a return journey to Earth with time and oxygen running out – a glorious merging of thick blackness of space; low-frequency sound effects adding to the realism along with a lack of soundtrack.


Another film to look effectively into the loneliness of space is SILENT RUNNING (1972) with a space botanist the only surviving crew member remaining alongside a workforce of small robots, defending his plants to the death (one thing NASA needs to get the hang of, aside from human reproduction in space, before we get to leave this planet and go anywhere – is how to grow plants properly!).

ALIEN (1979) is one of the most effective visualisations (even without the monster) of the oppressive vastness of space and the claustrophobic confines it can also offer – ALIEN dwells on how pathetic we, as humans, become when measured against the dark, empty, vastness of space and all that may live there and not be as friendly as us (though whether we, as a species, are all that friendly is another question).
Disney’s THE BLACK HOLE (1979) lingers on the madness of space – how the human mind copes with eternity and endlessness, or doesn’t (a problem all astronauts face and are trained to cope with). It’s hardly surprising that a man such as Dr. Hans Reinhardt turns to the dark side and megalomania, stuck in space with sharp-shooting androids, zombie-bots (of his own making) and uninvited cute robots (of Disney’s making).

The special effects in THE BLACK HOLE effectively convey the majesty of space and the black hole suitably offers no easy answers and relentless mind-screwing, rather than simple landing on other planets and exploring designer cities and alien species living in harmony – space in THE BLACK HOLE can be Hell. The event horizon in THE BLACK HOLE is almost as hellish as that found in horror sci-fi EVENT HORIZON (1997) that, literally, is Hell. 

GRAVITY, as seen on a big screen, in 3D, has a taut script that ditches languid character background but still develops Sandra Bullock’s inexperienced astronaut into an emotionally broken, often uncertain, bit too keen-to-please crew member who finds dignity and inner defence mechanisms, bravery and self-sacrifice in the face of disaster and impossible situations. And the situations feel authentically impossible to cope with or survive – a fire breaking out on a space station is a slow-build of threat when we first see a spark almost out of shot all the way up to a raging inferno; a weightless spiral in space clinging on to cables and jolting crashes against metal platforms as the astronauts attempt to grab hold of pieces of wreckage are filmed so that we feel the actual desperation rather than just admire the special effects (great though these are - but often the best special effects bolster the film's realism rather that detract from it).

We become lost in the on-screen risk – at times it’s almost too harrowing and realistic to watch; this is film where threat levels are raised to such a pitch they can only be described as blisteringly unhinged; a fully inclusive experience for all those out there in the dark, watching in 3D (on a small screen this wouldn't be nearly as effective - the film is a showcase for 3D as much as it is a reason why the multiplex or the defiant independents will never die).

And space is dangerous. The space shuttle Challenger, 73 seconds after take-off on January 28th, 1986, disintegrated - leading to the loss of seven lives. Some of the crew may have survived the explosion, but they didn’t survive the impact of the intact cockpit hitting the water at 200mph. Another shuttle – the Columbia broke up on re-entry in 2003 leading to the loss of another seven lives.

There have been accidents on the ground too - Valentin Bondarenko was badly burnt and died after a fire broke-out in a low pressure chamber he was being trained inside in 1961, and Sergei Vozovikov drowned in 1993 during water recovery training (the full extent of the dangers of escaping a shuttle cockpit underwater was re-created for the ending of GRAVITY – a sequence where the sudden brightness of Earth and a later, subtle close-up on wet sand after all the effects sequences in space really bringing home the difference between being ‘down here’ or being ‘up there’, but also reminding how close we are to being 'up there' – it’s only the shortest of journeys to reach space, but it's still the most dangerous one we can undertake).

The crew of the Soviet Soyuz 11, in 1971, saw the three cosmonauts lose their lives following a triumphant return to Earth from the world’s first space station after 23 days in orbit (a record at the time). All the crew were pin-ups back home and were heading back to a hero’s welcome. But an air vent had broken between the orbital and descent modules resulting in decompression. All three cosmonauts had died in space – their injuries were horrific. The craft that landed on Earth was undamaged, it seemed all was well - but the door opened to reveal all three crew members were dead; a country was in mourning.

There are films and books that instil a fear of the great unknown (or even the known) in us. JAWS in 1975 made us fearful of the water; even though it wasn’t the water that was the scary bit, just what swam in it. But for me, one work of fiction does for water and drowning what GRAVITY does for space and suffocation miles above the Earth – William Golding’s PINCHER MARTIN (1956).

This short novel describes how a naval crew member escaping a torpedoed ship treads water in a fight for survival before ending up shipwrecked on a small rocky islet – the sea never seemed as imposing as it does here; or so much a possible bringer of death. Loneliness, a fight for survival in the darkness, sudden isolation, encroaching madness and finally the very real possibility of drowning – at the end of GRAVITY there’s not so much of a divide between Naval Lieutenant Pincher Martin and astronaut Ryan Stone.

THE OSCARS, an update . .

How well GRAVITY does in the 2014 Academy Awards will be posted below, the same minute they are announced live, in the early hours of Monday morning... Assuming I’m still awake!


WINNER! ~ BEST DIRECTOR (Alfonso Cuarón)

WINNER! ~ BEST FILM EDITING (Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger)





Yes - I made it to the end, although I may be writing this in my sleep as dawn has risen, I think quite a while ago . .

Oh, and Jennifer Lawrence fell over again, this time on the red carpet . . it's becoming a tradition!

Congratulations to ‘GRAVITY’ - now an official ‘Oscar Winning’ movie! Now let's watch PREDATOR . . .

words: Mark Gordon Palmer

All Gravity images are

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