Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Review: Dunkirk (2017)

Directed: Christopher Nolan

Nolan’s clever use of his ambitious structure is the most interesting thing in his film and the reason to see it but it also proves to be the film’s dramatic undoing

Christopher Nolan commands our attention for better or for worse. Every few years it seems, Nolan brings forth a massive new film, styled in his preferred stylings of a summer entertainment to be enjoyed theatrically as a communal experience. And invariably a new film by Nolan is greeted as a cinematic event and for the most part it invariably is – box office numbers are robust, the critics greet it with copious interest and attention and it sparks a major dialog among the movie-going public. Such will again be the case with his impressive new World War II film, Dunkirk – a suspenseful re-telling of Operation Dynamo, the Allied Forces' strategic defeat in the face of a Nazi siege on the beaches of northern France. It is his most grounded work in over a decade.

Dunkirk, in many respects, might represent a major departure for Nolan, who in the recent past, has primarily made ‘concept’ films or (looking at them a bit unkindly) ‘gimmick’ films – films predicated on such narrative devices as travel through black holes, dreams within dreams and superhero vigilante elements – films with twist endings and loopy narratives and temporal hijinks. Dunkirk might appear to be a break from that, a straight drama at long last, but it is anything but. You could place Dunkirk squarely among his ‘concept’ films because Dunkirk at its most fundamental, is a film primarily about its ingenious and unusual structure.

Nolan unveils his structure early on – 3 concurrent narratives, taking place almost simultaneously, but each starting at a different point in time and proceeding at a different pace, until the film purportedly achieves confluence somewhere around the middle of the running time. In such manner proceed the week long story of Tommy, Gibson and Alex (Fionn Whitehead, Aneurin Barnard and Harry Styles respectively) - 3 young soldiers on Dunkirk beach awaiting evacuation; the day long story of Dawson (Mark Rylance), a British civilian taking his private boat out to Dunkirk to rescue British soldiers and the hour long story of Farrier (Tom Hardy), a Spitfire pilot providing air support to the Dunkirk evacuation from the air with his squadron.

The structure is ambitious and perhaps more easily found (and pulled off successfully) in literary fiction than in cinema and Nolan executes it coherently for the most part but the effect of the relentless cross-cutting between the three narratives creates the anticipatory effect of audiences trying to locate the seams and trying to put the pieces together as if it were a puzzle movie. Nolan then through his own doing shifts the primary audience interest from his individual tales and the fates of the characters to the question of how do the stories fit together temporally. This undermines the individual characters and stories which are quite humble to begin with – stripped as they are of any psychological detail or expository set-up. Nolan’s approach to story-telling here as in his other films remains strictly diagrammatic as opposed to dramatic or empathetic.  

And that is unfortunate because there are fleeting moments of humanity to be found in the individual stories. As when Tommy and Gibson volunteer to lead a wounded man on a stretcher to a ship not out of compassion but to secure their own passage off the beach. Or the way Dawson’s young son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) reacts manfully to a tragic incident on their boat.

The clever structure and the interplay of the concurrent timelines does yield some narrative pleasures. When Collins (Jack Lowden), one of Farrier’s Squadron members is shot down in the hour long ‘air’ story, we discover his fate only later when he surfaces in the day long ‘sea’ story (which is chronologically at an earlier point at that time) and is rescued by Dawson’s boat. Or when Dawson’s boat picks up a stranded soldier in the sea (Cillian Murphy), Nolan cuts to the week-long ‘beach’ story which is at an earlier point chronologically essentially functioning like a flashback when we see Murphy’s character  in that story.

All these experiments with time amply indicate Nolan’s preoccupation with chronology and the order of things in his various films. If there is an overarching auteurial concern manifest in his work, it is exactly that – how events occurring in various temporal frames fit together and what does it all mean. Previously he would use the cross-cutting technique to display the simultaneity of action only in the finales of his films, this is the first time he has constructed an entire film around it – to the exclusion of, on paper, anything else. It almost seems like Nolan is straining with the notion that disparate stories can mean more than the sum of their parts when they are cross-cut together - that cross-cutting adds something that wasn’t previously there. More often than not, it subtracts as the drama is diffused and the individual stories begin to shrink in interest compared to the whole.

Another rather common malaise of modern blockbuster film-making also seems to afflict Nolan’s film-making choices. The cross-cutting employed by Nolan gets increasingly frenetic in certain climatic sections, wildly cutting mid-scene between his three stories to a soundtrack of deafening proportions. It seeks to artificially escalate the sense of drama with a visual and aural assault. It is perhaps the cinematic equivalent of the Agatha Christie technique of writing her thrillers. As her narratives reached their climaxes, Christie would employ ever shorter sentences to lend the sense of speed to her hungry and curious readers. Similarly, the length of shots here gets shorter and shorter for climatic scenes but the effect is not nearly the same and audiences are more likely to come away with a headache than feeling sated.

All in all, Nolan has produced a competent and imminently watchable war picture. It does subscribe to the utterly reductive notion than the most persuasive form of engagement and entertainment for modern audiences is heightened suspense but beyond that it offers an admirably stripped down narrative experience unburdened with smothering exposition and very short on dialog and speechifying. The film is also well-acted by its cast of largely unknown young actors and much of the action is well staged, in the screen-filling splendid IMAX cinematography of Hoyte van Hoytema no less. The ticking clock score by Hans Zimmer is serviceable but indistinctive and seems to have but two gears, louder and softer.

Credit to Nolan that the film feels as intimate and ‘small’ as it does despite carrying a monstrous 150 million dollar price tag though that could also point to a budget ill-spent. Nolan’s clever use of his ambitious structure is the most interesting thing in his film and the reason to see it but it also proves to be the film’s dramatic undoing.


Saturday, 1 October 2016

New York Film Festival '16 Review: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Directed By: Ken Loach

Ken Loach damns the British welfare system with angry ferocious "issue film" and wins a Palme D'Or for his efforts.

Ken Loach, the 80 year old British stalwart of humanist kitchen-sink cinema, is the most selected film-maker ever at Cannes and has shown films in competition a record 13 times (including his last 5 films). His selection often draws jeers from some about what dirt does he have about the Cannes selection committee (and commander in chief Thierry Fremaux), but Loach shut down that conversation by winning his second Palme D’Or winner for I, Daniel Blake, a decade after winning his first one (for The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2006)).

And he might as well, as he arrives with the mad fury of the righteous citizen shaking his fist at the government that has forgotten him. Paul Laverty, his regular screenwriter, crafts a scenario that seems like it’s already been seen in any number of “issue film” over the years. We see an old man, the said Daniel Blake of the title (Dave Johns, wry, tough and human), a carpenter who suffers a heart-attack and who is caught amid the catch-22 of the horribly insensitive (as we are told) British welfare system as he is subject to abject poverty. His misfortunes are relayed by contrasting them with the setbacks suffered by Katie (a very good Hayley Squires), an unemployed single mom of two, who has recently moved to Newcastle.

These two inexorably decent people bond over shared frustrations and defeats as they battle on to lead a respectable life, something which proves extremely challenging. Even though Laverty says that the stories are based on real ones that came up through their research, the film abounds in clichés, old and new, that routinely populate such “issue films”. The old man who cannot use computers and is stopped in his tracks by a computer mouse, the single mother sleeping hungry while giving all the food to her kids, the old man facing trouble to recruit for new jobs are all tropes we have seen even though Loach and Laverty try their best to make these situations sting with renewed outrage.

The pattern of the scenario seems to be to fling every new humiliation at the characters so the situation can get exponentially worse every time. And some of these indignities can be seen coming a mile off as the film rushes through them as if through a checklist almost – when a young man offers to help Katie find a job that he can get her, it leads to exactly what you would expect. These kind of “issue films” can often resemble exploitation films, only instead of lopping of the characters’ limbs and body parts, the film-makers chip away at the characters’ self-respect and self-worth.

That’s not to say that it is a screaming hysterical woe-be-me film in the vein of say Lee Daniels’ Precious (2009). Far from it, the film is strongly directed by Loach with his usual unvarnished visual style. The palette seems even drabber than usual to attend to the grim story. All scenes are staged with a maximum amount of understatement (George Fenton is listed as the composer but does not intrude upon any scene to sensationalize it) and play as they would in real life with life-like performances from both the lead performers and other members of the cast. This formal approach can make some of these scenes even more powerful for audiences and Loach might yet succeed to draw a rise out of you in some scenes, as he does in the stirring scene where Katie humiliatingly succumbs to hunger in a food bank.

This is an intensely political film for being such a quietly humble film but does not contextualize the calamity portrayed in any larger national, financial or sociological terms. It might make the film more human and more widely dispersible but it can also be akin to pointing a finger at an injustice and running away. Is the film worthy of the Palme D’or? I don’t think so but it yet provides a worthy, engaging look at the plight of many working class people who the government has turned a face away from and Loach and Laverty are absolutely doing them a service by damning the dehumanizing bureaucracy of a broken welfare system in such a public way on the world stage. The film should play well for festival audiences and might specially appeal to British audiences as a shared experience of torment that many of them go through.


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Mumbai Film Festival ’13 Review: The Past (2013) Original French Title - Le Passé

Directed By: Asghar Farhadi

Asghar Farhadi had one of those life-altering breakthroughs in 2011 with A Separation, a small Iranian film that quietly premiered in Competition at the beginning of the year in Berlin where it won the Golden Bear, Best Actor (for the male cast) AND Best Actress (for the female cast). This was before it was unleashed upon the world and went on to become one of the most lavishly praised films of the current generation. The movie was very widely seen and appreciated, covering the widest spectrum of cinephiles. From IMDB voters to highbrow critics, A Separation had one and all calling it an immense new work and it heralded the announcement on the world stage of a major new talent in Asghar Farhadi, who ended his journey on that film by accepting an Oscar in front of a billion strong live audience.

Naturally his new film had a built in fan base and huge expectations to appease. Even his festival berth was upgraded from a Competition slot at Berlin to the obviously more momentous Competition slot at Cannes. And so just how good is The Past?

Not very, I am afraid. The Past finds Farhadi again working in a similar register to A Separation narratively as well as formally. It depicts an Iranian man Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa) returning after years to France to divorce his French wife Marie (Bérénice Bejo) who is now living with another man Samir (Tahar Rahim) and his children. The central drama arises out of Luci’s ((Pauline Burlet) Marie’s grown up daughter from another marriage before her marriage to Ahmad!) rejection of her mother’s marriage to Samir.

The scenario has the whiff of melodrama from the start but it only deepens as Farhadi piles detail upon detail on this flimsy foundation. This narrative technique worked wonders in A Separation where the cascading deluge of information and multiple viewpoints helped highlight the intangibility of the concept of truth. Here it succeeds only to trivialize the lives of its characters which are boiled down to a few choice details that seem to define them, over which they argue with the greatest conviction as if it were life and death.

And Farhadi even tries to make it life and death in a sense. After pulling in a lot of different directions and throwing out possibilities of multiple tangents along which the drama could proceed, the most interesting of them seemed to me the tension-filled interaction between past and present lovers of Marie, Ahmad and Samir, their scenes positively crackle with awkwardness and are pregnant with drama. Instead the entire conflict and the film reduces to the circumstances of Samir’s wife’s suicide attempt (the failing of which results in her being in a coma for the duration of the film).

Herein lies my central gripe with this drama, of somehow considering the occurrence of a suicide attempt almost necessarily due to abetment. There is a mortal certainty that Farhadi has about it that I find troubling. There is much fretting over who told the poor victim what and how, in the days leading up to her suicide attempt and characters hysterically fight over these details even though it is stated repeatedly that the victim was depressed. It is this insistence by all the characters, and by extension, by Farhadi, this moral certitude, that suicide can and only result from some situation of abetment or some fantastical trigger, that gives me pause. It completely ignores the fact that human beings don’t work with the lucidity of algorithms and that an act as inherently irrational as a suicide attempt would not necessarily have a strong foundation in a causal chain of events.

The pile up of detail isn’t limited to the narrative. Even formally, Farhadi is working overtime to pack in so much information in every single frame and scene that his film seems overwrought. That Samir is a launderer is conveyed repeatedly through his car having clothes hanging and the industry of his shop. Marie’s life as a chemist is also repeatedly shown and depicted, as also the new house being painted and prepared for the new couple’s marriage. One senses a belief in the director that excess verisimilitude equals increased vividness and veracity. But what it basically does is brings the pointlessness of his drama into even sharper relief. His busy mis-en-scene in service of his hackneyed scenario (a word I sadly never imagined I would use for Farhadi!) is akin to combing the hair of a gorilla with a fine-tooth comb.

However I do think the editing and sound design were absolutely fabulous and it is here that Farhadi showed glimpses of the formal mastery that brought A Separation to life. The acting is good for the most part though as the entire scenario seems to be much ado about nothing, so does most of the acting. But Tahar Rahim does typically strong and understated work.

The Past is a French production and that is most obviously seen in the glossy look this film has in comparison to A Separation which was much more soberly arranged. Maybe it’s just the fact that a developed country photographs more prettily than a developing country but it is something that struck me. Here’s wishing this great director a return to form with his next film.


Friday, 13 December 2013

Review: The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug (2013) AND HFR 3D (48 FPS) or High Frame Rate 3D

Directed By: Peter Jackson

HFR 3D (48 FPS) or High Frame Rate 3D

It is rare in cinema that you truly see something that you have never seen before (in spite all the claims Hollywood blockbusters routinely make). Peter Jackson, technician extraordinaire, with his bull-headed embrace of HFR 3D or High Frame 3D has done exactly that, provided audiences with a truly unprecedented movie-watching experience, unlike anything ever before. On his promise, prima facie, he delivers, but at what cost?

I missed the HFR 3D on (the first part of his needlessly lengthy three part adaptation of a slim children’s volume) The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, because of its relative exclusivity. It was the first film ever to be projected in HFR 3D for paying audiences and theatres were just dipping their toes into the water then. A year and a billion dollar box office gross later, HFR 3D is now readily available everywhere, and it speaks to the strength and brand name of Peter Jackson that a single director can cause cinemas worldwide to adopt a completely different projection system at an enormous cost with little foreseeable adoption of this technology by other film-makers.

There was a tremendous hullaballoo over the HFR 3D by critics this time last year when first part was screened. Summarily I, with infinitely more excitement for the technology than the film itself, sat down to watch The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, knowing myself to be a year late to the discussion. And within minutes I realized the full import of what the naysayers were saying and what HFR 3D truly looks like. Suffice to say that it most definitely looks unprecedented, a monstrosity so vile as to sear the cornea of your eyes with its ugliness. 

The cheapest of video, shot on a mobile phone in the infancy of technology would be more cinematic than this 600 million dollar enterprise. Video looks like video but great video photography can look as good as film as shown by Roger Deakins in Skyfall and some other great cinematographers working today. Not the case here, you can practically see the light reflectors just off the frame or the unnerving clarity of digital images, watching the movie in this format was like watching the “Behind the Scenes” or the “Making of documentary” on the big screen. It made me wonder, where’s the movie?

With the overwhelmingly videoy appearance of the images, the film looks like a filmed dress rehearsal, a home video of people dressing up and fooling around on Halloween. The costumes, sets and make-up all lay bare their artifice and any illusion or suspension of disbelief is shattered. It is so constantly jarring as to be akin to the experience of watching the film being made on set than watching anything resembling a finished product in any way.

Then there’s the motion which distracted me in the first minute itself and continued throughout the lengthy duration of the film. In 48 FPS, everything seems to move on fast forward, it’s like watching the film at 1.5X or 2X speed, slow glances become winks, punches lose their impact, every motion becomes exaggerated and unnatural. There is simply too much information here, information between frames that we don’t need to see. Our brain fills in the information between the 24 frames of normal cinema to give us a seamless illusion of motion, but when our brain starts filling in information between the 48 frames of HFR 3D, it looks alien and disconcerting.

All camera moves are distractingly smooth, everything is always in focus, and your brain immediately recognizes the fakeness of it all. The 3D is beyond outstanding, it is genuinely the greatest 3D I have ever seen. But 3D combined with HFR and the horrifying clarity it brings, destroys any sense of scale in these epic films.

What film or 2D generally does is it expands the world outwards from the frame making things look big or giant. What HFR 3D does is it compresses the world into the box of the screen, it is like watching a make-believe play with action figures in a miniature doll house. As Norma Desmond would caustically say, “The pictures have truly got small” and she would be dead right.

HFR 3D is a crime against cinema, a confounding and baffling new technology that seeks to reduce the experience of watching cinema akin to a cheap  “flash play” on a street filmed with a third rate mobile phone. I would any day prefer a film shot on 8 mm with a swarm of grain crawling across the screen than this alien vision. I, as a human, don’t see things this way, nobody does. HFR 3D desecrates not just cinema but the pure human act of even seeing or viewing things, it is not a fad, it is a folly, much less is it a cornerstone, it is a calamity and catastrophe and one of the worst singular contributions to the art and science of cinema.


The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

What’s there to say about the film itself though? Picking up the pieces from my awful viewing experience, let me piece together some thoughts on the film itself.

The film is absolutely state-of-the-art in terms of visual effects and production values. This is amazingly seamless, a truly grand achievement in rendering computer generated images, life-like and vivid to the extreme and beyond the point where we can say photo-real. These images are now so far advanced in sophistication that it is like another layer of reality in the movie itself. Smaug, the most significant new special effect, is dazzlingly, amazingly realized and perfection in every way. The various environments created, the abode of the wood elves, the forest of Mirkwood, Dol Guldur the fortress of returning villain Sauron, and, most spectacularly, Erebor, the dwarf kingdom, are towering achievements of production design. Indeed the movie is practically animated, every frame and cranny and nook is very heavily designed and rendered. On that level alone, the film impresses and pleases, there is genuine artistry here in the art.

The story, direction and performances are less successful but seem almost beside the point. There is nothing much to say about any of those and you get the feeling that Jackson’s attention on his film was spent exactly as it is proportioned in this review, more on the design and less on story, character and performances.

The film has two spectacular action sequences that are sure to be favorites for a long time and re-watched endlessly on Blu-Ray – the barrel escape from the wood elves (with some of the most creative orc kills the franchise has seen) and the climatic confrontation of Smaug with the dwarves. This last bit of business is completely dreamed by Jackson as much of the entire film is, the book it is being based on being so slim as to be shorter than any of the three individual scripts for these films. 

Padding material is added in the form of a love triangle between new character Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), returning series star Legolas (Orlando Bloom, more badass than he ever was in the original films) and the youngest dwarf. The dwarves remain the low point of this franchise, you would think that the one thing Jackson would do with 10 hours of footage is develop the dwarves and give them distinguishable personalities. They remain a blur and you couldn’t name or recognize upwards of 3 out of 13 dwarves. They mostly stand in the background and say a few lines here and there. There presence is so insignificant that were their numbers to vary from scene to scene (which they probably do), the audience wouldn’t bat an eyelid. These are truly risible parts for actors as practically extras could have been cast and the films would be exactly the same.

In a surprise, Jackson exactly cuts out a sequence from the book, namely the extremely amusing scene of the introduction of the dwarves to Beorn the shape-shifter. The absence of that scene further high-lights the schizophrenic tone of these Hobbit films, which jump from ultra-serious to grandiose to silly. The book is constantly arch and snarky, playing like a mean-spirited adventure with amusingly macabre undertones, the film tries to play it straight a lot of the times specially with regards to Thorin (Richard Armitage) a character who is always played for gravity and alpha male heroism whereas he was a conceited and unsympathetic brat in the book. New entrant Bard (Luke Evans) is granted a similarly schizophrenic character, he goes from friend of the dwarves to foe to friend again a short while with the barest hints of reason or rhyme.

Howard Shore’s musical score, so outstanding in the first film, was a underwhelming here, maybe because the film is so busy and drawn out at the same time.

Most of the above stars are granted purely in recognition of the technical prowess of the film and the great achievement of its design.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Mumbai Film Festival ’13 Review: Closed Curtain (2013) Original Iranian Title - Pardé

Directed By: Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi

Jafar Panahi, the embattled Iranian director of acclaimed works like The Circle (2000), Crimson Gold (2003), Offside (2006) and This Is Not A Film (2011), is currently battling the despotic Iranian regime which has handed him a 6 year jail term (which he awaits under house arrest) and a 20 year ban on film-making, chaining his artistic impulses and deeply depressing this great artist who was said to be contemplating suicide at one point. He has nevertheless managed to make a second film from his captivity (the first being This Is Not A Film).

Closed Curtains is bigger in scope (relatively) to This Is Not A Film and almost has something resembling a plot or a narrative which sets it apart from its cousin This Is Not A Film which is considered a documentary. But the scope, as stated, is bigger only by comparison, this film also takes place competently within a house. There are some exterior shots but they are from the terrace or the windows of the house and Panahi does stage atleast one memorable exterior sequence through his window!

The house in question is the sea side 3 story holiday retreat of Panahi and as such offers a larger setting and more variety of scenery simply by the fact of there being more rooms to shoot in than his city apartment which he used in This Is Not A Film. Thus the house is a potent enough setting for a chamber piece and that is exactly how the film develops. At first.

Beginning with an extended take of a still camera looking out through a barricaded window as a screenwriter arrives with provisions at the holiday retreat of a friend, the subject of artists in hiding and captivity immediately raises its head with the arriving writer a probable stand in for Mr Panahi himself.

The reason for his hiding is soon revealed to be not his writing but his dog which he cannot part with as dogs are being rounded up and killed in the city where he lives. The writer’s routine is charted in fluid long takes by Panahi, his film-making acumen not dulled it seems by infrequent use. A wrench is thrown in this peaceful scenario by the arrival of a woman on the edge who is also supposedly in hiding! Panahi even manages moments of comedy from this bizarrely surreal scenario.

But just as he did in This Is Not A Film, where Panahi began staging his script by putting tape marks on the carpet and describing the film he could not make, he here preempts this story just as he preempted that attempt after despairing about its futility. The narrative which does become fairly interesting as it enfolds as a two hander between the writer (Kambozia Partovi, also the co-director) and Melika (Maryam Moqadam) dissipates away as the film dissolves into the real life story of Mr. Panahi arriving at his holiday retreat to spend a few days. What happened earlier was probably a film as imagined by Mr. Panahi which starts to haunt Mr. Panahi as the two stories, the story of the film he imagined and the story of his life occupy the same house and begin to collide and intermingle and blur. It expresses the directors need to let his stories let out of himself or he’s haunted by them. In keeping with his supposed state of mind during filming, Melika is a suicidal character who might or might not be successful in her suicide attempt, staged in a virtuoso long take by Mr. Panahi.

The restrictions on his creativity has led Mr. Panahi to be more experimental than he perhaps might have been had he been making straight films with freedom. As in This Is Not A Film, here Mr. Panahi experiments with shooting on an iPhone and the meta-narrtive technique of cutting between two cameras looking at each other, much like in his previous film and famously originated in Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera (1929). The film shot digitally, is still handsomely made, and its narrative portions stand up to any other film being made today. 

As the narrative of the film sputters out, the film is best seen as another statement by Mr. Panahi about his condition though he seems happier than he did in This Is Not A Film. The award for Best Screenplay at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival is not entirely without merit through one senses that Mr. Panahi’s situation might have had much to do with it.

But the film is definitely worth seeing, if for nothing else then just for experiencing Mr. Panahi’s film-making pending a full blown narrative feature by him, which sadly might not arrive for 20 years hence.


Sunday, 6 October 2013

Review: Gravity (2013) SPOILER FREE

Directed By: Alfonso Cuarón

First things first, watch this film in IMAX 3D if you can. This film practically demands it. Having myself experienced this massively acclaimed and praised movie in IMAX 3D, I can attest to the fact that it only stands to lose on a smaller screen. Infact I wonder how it will play on a 20 inch monitor or a 14 inch laptop screen, not very well I would imagine. If seen that way, you won’t be misplaced to wonder what the fuss is about. I thankfully did see it in IMAX 3D and I can happily tell you just what the fuss is about.

And the major fuss here is about Alfonso Cuarón bracing implacability. Alfonso Cuarón simply doesn’t blink. All the horror and devastation of a catastrophe in space is literally shown head on with an intensity that will make you wince and your heartbeat quicken. His camera is as unblinking as he is, as several sections of the film are filmed in long unbroken takes that add an immediacy to the scenes that will make you a nervous wreck. There is solace in editing, in blinking, where you can cut to something else to momentarily dissipate the tension. Not so here, you will watch dumbfounded as the International Space Station, the monument of human space achievement, shatters into smithereens in front of your eyes as debris from a Russian satellite hits it and your heroine is caught in mind-numbing physical peril.

These scenes, of which there are several in the film, are so horrifying, so stunning, that you might even forget to appreciate Cuarón’s ability to choreograph such mayhem. The movie mostly sticks to scientific principles; that is, there is no sound in these scenes when the International Space Station explodes or the Hubble Telescope is hit. There is also the physics of space where the structures don’t so much explode as sickeningly shatter into small bits that flood the frame, and they are all moving faster than bullets, a human being in their path would disintegrate into bits not unlike them.

These scenes (as others), in what really is a tense survival action thriller, heartily demonstrate Cuarón’s sound film-making skills. The complete and utter absence of schizophrenic “fast” cutting lends a coherence to the action scenes which could qualify as revolutionary when put next to today’s action blockbusters (Alfonso Cuarón also serves as editor along with Mark Sanger). The action, as it were, seems to be a recorded by a cameraman in space who was just as untethered and free-floating in space like our heroine. This approach very clearly establishes the scale and scope of the structures which she is desperately groping around, and lends a sense of direction in what is the most directionless place to stage an action set piece.

The veracity and verisimilitude of the film are really commendable, the entirety of the film takes place in zero gravity and the challenges and the difficultly of motion are rendered extremely palpable for the audience to correctly understand and follow. Similarly, the entire film way be called an animated film, as obviously not a frame of footage was shot in space and not a frame of footage was shot in zero gravity, Sandra Bullock being suspended by wires the entire time. Even so, the realism achieved by the state of the art visual effects approaches documentary level truthfulness. This is the very definition of immersive cinema. The entire milieu, the interior of space stations and even their exteriors and the very cosmos themselves are rendered to such a level of detail and perfection as to afford you the closest experience to space travel for the price of a movie ticket. By god this movie earns your money.

As admirable as Cuarón’s focus on the gripping survival struggle of his heroine is, and it is this microscopic focus which lends the movie its intensity, it is ultimately simple-minded. Ordinarily, this would hardly be a complaint in a director driven film, but Cuarón (sharing script-writing duties with his son Jonas) dearly wants it to be more than a procedural about survival in space after a catastrophe. There’s some business about Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) reminiscing about her dead daughter that serves I am not sure what purpose. And there is a fair bit or crying and fretting when push comes to shove during the film’s climatic moments. Cuarón was very brave in his choice of a Spartan aesthetic for the film but not brave enough methinks. While he doesn’t employ sound effects during the terrifying action scenes, there is Steven Price's thunderous score to quicken your heartbeat for you if the action itself fails to do so. He also wants you to be moved by the struggles portrayed on screen. Any catharsis, if it were to be felt, is telegraphed in advance and programmed for your benefit and ready consumption, very differently from say Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, a similarly Spartan exercise, where the catharsis felt is very organic and not manipulated by the director.

George Clooney plays exactly George Clooney in the film in his brief role whereas Sandy Bullock is game as the all American Dr. Ryan Stone who gets to pay her own unmissbale homage to another sci-fi classic – Andrew Standton’s Wall-E. She’s good but I wonder if a more skilled actress, like say Naomi Watts, might have been able to do more with the role by making the character less sympathetic. Sympathy! Alas the price paid for making a film in the Hollywood blockbuster format, a 120 Million Dollar state of the art production about basically a woman drifting in space, the price of Cuarón’s implacability tempered by concessions to general audience expectation.

4/5 (I am feeling stingy, so actually make that 4.5/5)

Spoiler Alert (Highlight to read): Two parts that I found were weak in the movie are the implausibility of Bullock's escape from the fire in the ISS. The other is the dream sequence where George Clooney briefly re-appears. From the first second it was obvious that it was a dream sequence, it was absurd they were not even trying for realism there. End of spoilers.