Film and drama

Screen Themes — Gravity vs 2001: A Space Odyssey

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This week, entertainment editor John Turnbull compares two films by visionary directors — Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: a Space Odyessey and Alfonso Cuaron’s new box office smash Gravity.


As the annual Hollywood awards season approaches, one movie is likely to be on most critics lists for Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actress – and that movie is Gravity.

On the face of it, Gravity should be an exceptionally dull movie.  It’s set almost entirely in space and features only two actors — one of whom is Sandra Bullock, who you might remember from not-so-good movies like Speed 2: Cruise Control and The Lake House*.

The other is George Clooney, who can be good with the right director or incredibly smug and unlikeable with the wrong one — which, bizarrely enough, seems to include himself.

Fortunately, the director in this case is Alfonso Cuaron, auteur behind films such as Y Tu Mama Tambien and the spectacular Children of Men. He also directed one of the darker installments of the Harry Potter series, 2004’s Prisoner of Azkaban.

Cuaron is a master visual sylist with a penchant for hyper-extended tracking shots — like this one from Children of Men (extreme violence warning):

While Gravity can’t match Children of Men’s relentless energy, the film still manages to raise tension to almost unbearable levels. Intellectually, you know it’s unlikely that the film will feature 80+ minutes of Bullock tumbling through space, but you’re still on the edge of your seat as Clooney exercises his down-home charm and offers solutions to her problems through science.

While Gravity doesn’t get the physics 100 per cent right all of the time, it’s still an impressive achievement in terms of portraying real space science; particularly cool is the accurate and terrifying depiction of how fire behaves in zero gravity.

Highly recommended on the big screen.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Few film buffs would deny that Stanley Kubrick was a genius. Few non-film buffs who have been forced to sit through one of his movies would deny that Stanley Kubrick could have done with a good editor.

For many critics, Kubrick’s best films are A Clockwork Orange, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket — three films completed in sequence over a period from 1971 to 1987, a golden run of cinema only interrupted by the dishwater dull Barry Lyndon in 1975. These undisputed classics were driven by tight scripts, virtuoso direction and exceptional performances by actors in their prime — Malcolm McDowell, Jack Nicholson and R. Lee Ermey respectively.

Released in the halcyon days of 1968, 2001: A Space Odyssey is regarded by many as a sci-fi masterpiece, following on from the biting satire of Dr. Strangelove four years earlier. The story starts somewhere before recorded history, when evolution was given a nudge by a mysterious monolith and apes picked up tools to beat the shit out of their fellow apes.

Fast forward a couple of million years and we find ourselves in space, where an astronaut named Bowman (Keir Dullea) matches wits with a menacing computer called HAL.

While 2001 was undoubtedly groundbreaking for 1968, the years have not been kind to the film. The pace is glacial for much of the 160 minute running time, and the iconic theme is over-used and often heavy handed (this… IS… DRAMA!!!)

Despite these cracks, the film has some spectacular visuals and builds tension well towards the end. Artificial Intelligence HAL makes a worthy antagonist, a character so iconic he has entered the popular consciousness and has even appeared in The Simpsons

The Verdict

2001 is a classic the same way Citizen Kane is a classic — better in memory than in the harsh light of the twenty-first century. Countless films have built upon, stolen from and referenced these historic films, and in doing so have reduced their impact and entertainment value.  Sad, perhaps, but that is what has occurred.

Gravity wins this contest by being almost an hour shorter and a hell of a lot more entertaining.

* Have you actually seen The Lake House? It features a sullen Keanu Reeves and a mailbox that can send letters through time. I mean, seriously. Fuck you, The Lake House.

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