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Top Ten Directors – Part Four I

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Regulars at this blog (if there are any) may recall that some years ago I started posting about my favourite film directors. I posted about three of them – Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and Christopher Nolan – and then I got caught up in reviewing every new release I saw. But I thought it time to get back to my top ten, with the caveat that to credit the director as being solely responsible for any film is to utterly misunderstand the filmmaking process. So here we go…

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For me, Michael Mann is probably the single most important filmmaker I have ever encountered. It was in early 1996 that I first saw Heat (1996), a film that had a profound effect on me and set me on the course of becoming a film scholar and critic. I had seen The Last of the Mohicans (1992) beforehand, but Heat was my major introduction to Mann’s work. Subsequently I sought out The Last of the Mohicans again and made sure to see The Insider (1999) when it came out. Then I gathered the video tapes (and later DVDs) of Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Keep (1983), The Jericho Mile (1979)and L. A. Takedown (1989). When Ali (2001) came out I made the effort to see it, by which time I had decided that I would do a PhD in film studies focused on Michael Mann (as you do). Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006) were released while I was researching my doctorate, and in the week of my graduation, Public Enemies (2009) came to British cinemas, before very briefly in 2015, Blackhat. I saw them all, think about them at length, and have written and published at least something about all of them.

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Due to my research, I have a very particular view of Mann that may not communicate well to others, but here goes. Mann is a holistic filmmaker whose work demonstrates precise interaction of the various cinematic elements. Working as writer and director on most of his films, Mann has spoken in interviews of the ‘harmonics’ in his work, and indeed the various elements are harmonised to an extraordinary degree. Script, performance, cinematography, production design, editing, sound, music – all resonate in a very specific and distinct way across Mann’s oeuvre. These harmonics are what create the relentlessly lyrical movement in The Last of the Mohicans, the sleek and almost ephemeral stream of Collateral, Miami Vice and Blackhat as well as the distorted mental and physical worlds of Manhunter, the state and industrial containments in The Jericho Mile and Thief, the confusing disjointedness of Ali and Public Enemies and the expressionism of The Keep.

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From within this extraordinary oeuvre, what really stands out as Mann’s best film, and what is the best introduction to his work? All will be revealed in my next post

Michael-Mann

Terminator Genisys

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Some franchises get better as they continue, and some demonstrate the law of diminishing returns. Terminator Genisys falls firmly into the latter category, as it attempts to rewrite a significant part of the franchise’s history and, in doing so, makes various clunking failures that highlight the film’s own redundancy.

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Genisys repeatedly raids the Terminator production line, using footage from the 1984 original The Terminator, complete with young Arnold Schwarzenegger before his grizzled contemporary turns up. Nostalgia can be an effective dramatic approach, as in the rebooted Star Trek, but here the replaying of familiar material highlights Genisys‘ own lack of ideas. Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier’s script recycles various plot points from the first two films (ignoring continuity from Rise of the Machines and Salvation), and attempts to create new versions of established characters. The results, however, are anaemic and insipid. Schwarzenegger has been parodying himself for years and this is no exception, except that he is old and regularly reminds us of this (yes, Arnold, you’re old, not obsolete, we get it!). Emilia Clarke’s Sarah Connor is a pale shadow of Linda Hamilton’s guerrilla warrior, while Jai Courtney’s Kyle Reese lacks the feral desperation of Michael Biehn’s original incarnation (and Courtney’s massively buff physique – clearly there are still gyms post-Judgment Day – undercuts Schwarzenegger’s previously exceptional body). Jason Clarke is a bland John Connor, despite the potential for a great inversion of his character, a plot twist infuriatingly exposed by the film’s trailer.

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All of these faults would be forgiveable if the film managed to engage with some interesting ideas. The best sci-fi is always concerned with ideas (see this year’s Ex Machina for a recent example), and the original Terminators did exactly this, principally the relationship humanity has with technology. The Terminator showed the omnipresence of technology and Terminator 2: Judgment Day blurred the distinction between human and machine. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines did the same thing badly but the unfairly maligned Terminator Salvation managed to go in a different direction by reversing the awareness of what is what. Terminator Salvation managed to refresh the franchise, but Genisys simply and blatantly replays what we have seen before: more time travel, more old Arnie, more unstoppable (although not really) terminator upgrades, more delays to Judgment Day, more ways to change the past and fight the future, and all for the purpose of stretching out a franchise that was completed perfectly well in 1991. The concepts that make the Terminator mythos interesting are simply referenced without engagement or due attention, resulting in a lazy and lifeless experience. Furthermore, director Alan Taylor demonstrates the same shortcomings he did with Thor: The Dark World, failing to create action set pieces that draw the viewer in or offer anything beyond stuff blowing up and flying around, with an unnecessarily clanking soundtrack that emphasises time and time again that THESE ARE MACHINES! Thanks, Alan, I might have forgotten otherwise.

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Perhaps the greatest insult to the original films is the abandonment of their interesting gender politics. Far more than being a “strong female character,” Hamilton’s Sarah Connor was a woman of vision, voice and agency, who evolved from helpless victim to guerrilla commando, almost to the loss of her humanity. Clarke’s Sarah, however, mostly complains about her lack of choice over her future before accepting the dictates of the father and husband figures around her. Worse still, her voiceover is replaced with that of Kyle, making it his story rather than her’s and sidelining one of the most iconic women of action cinema. Depressing.

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James Cameron gave his blessing to Genisys and described it as the true next installment. Much as I love Cameron, I have to disagree with him here, as Terminator Genisys is a wretched, retrograde regurgitation that fails to even have enough nostalgic value to maintain its running time. At least someone’s smiling.

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To Infinity, and Beyond: Science Fiction Countdown – 3

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The third film in my countdown of top five transportive sci-fi movies gives the most overt attention to transporting the viewer (although it is not necessarily the most successful). Avatar creates a tangible, tactile environment that immerses and surrounds the viewer, an environment that took me far beyond the cinema in which I first saw it and continues to do so across repeat viewings. It is a literally awesome film in the sense that it fills me with awe with its extraordinarily rich and compelling vision of an alien planet and the experience of exploring it along with the protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Nor is this experience of Avatar simply down to the 3D, as I find the film immersive and absorbing on 2D home viewings as well. This effect is partially due to the remarkable production design that details the geography, flora and fauna of Pandora, as well as the film’s vibrant visual style that thrusts the viewer through these gorgeous but also dangerous environments. James Cameron has always been an intensely visceral director, from the relentless pursuit of The Terminator to the collapsing environment of Titanic. In Avatar, the director’s visceral and absorbing style takes the viewer into a world that is both alien and familiar, showing us what we know in a new light and creating greater appreciation of our surroundings beyond the filmic world itself.

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Interstellar

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Interstellar is many things. It is a descendant of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the direct descendant of Contact (1997), midwifed by Avatar (2009) and Gravity (2013). It is the most ambitious film of Christopher Nolan’s career, incorporating theories of wormholes, time and gravity into a story of space travel in the midst of environmental devastation that, perhaps appropriately for a film with apparent familial connections, explores themes of family, hope and love. It is a near-three hour spectacle of epic proportions that delivers awe-inspiring visuals as well as exquisite detail in the production design. It utilises Nolan’s trademark crosscutting techniques to tie together sequences for greater impact. It centres on a father-daughter relationship, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey and Mackenzie Foy (later Jessica Chastain) along with a cast that includes Nolan alumni Michael Caine (obviously) and Anne Hathaway, along with Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, Matt Damon, Wes Bentley and Ellen Burstyn. It is a eulogy for NASA and a lament for the abandonment of space travel and all that represents for human endeavour and ingenuity. And it is an attempt to blend hard science (both fact and fiction) with an emotional story of broken families.

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At times, Interstellar achieves the heights of its ambition, utilising its extraordinary scale to move its audience both emotionally and intellectually. At other times, the balance between science and sentimentality is lost and some scenes feel awkward. Explaining love as a dimension within the universe is ultimately unconvincing because love is at its most dramatic when it is not quantified. Love is the ultimate mystery that is most dramatic when left unexplained, and Interstellar’s attempts to incorporate love into scientific calculations do not work.

Perhaps ironically, Interstellar’s greatest weakness may be its insistence upon science, in the sense that everything is observable and quantifiable. A great strength of Nolan’s previous work is ambiguity. How much of Memento can be trusted? Who did what in The Prestige? Was everything justifiable in The Dark Knight? How much of Inception was a dream? Ambiguity is also used to great effect in Contact and 2001: A Space Odyssey – in neither film is it entirely clear what happened. Mysteries abound in Interstellar, but they are ultimately explained and, while the explanations are consistent within the logic of the film, they are also very pat: Eureka moments with the mathematical formula laid out in painstaking detail, which reduces the dramatic impact of key moments.

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That said, while Interstellar overplays its (pseudo)science, it succeeds both as a visual and an emotional spectacle. The vastness of space is beautiful and awe-inspiring, as are the landscapes of Earth and other planets. The eponymous interstellar travel is breathtaking and humbling, while Nolan provides a number of action set pieces that rival the tension of zero-gravity combat of Inception and the impact of the street battle in The Dark Knight. Furthermore, the sentimentality of the father-daughter relationship is played with Spielbergian conviction, as recorded messages express loss and longing across separations of both long years and immense distances. The climax is an extraordinary special effects sequence of dazzling technical virtuosity, yet this sequence is sustained by a moving and affecting display of love. Interstellar may fail to explain love, but it does succeed at portraying love.

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Ostensibly the film is about abandoning Earth and seeking a future on other planets. But as with any film, the events are open to interpretation. As with Nolan’s previous films, grieving and loss are major themes, and Interstellar suggests that part of loss is what we leave for our children, the importance of the future we create for them. Time is a variable within the calculations of Professor Brand (Caine) and the adult Murph (Chastain), but it is also a philosophical consideration for the film as a whole. What do we do with time? How can we maximise its utilisation and its availability for others? Do some people warrant more time than others and a species warrant more than individuals? Interstellar expresses a fundamental aspect of cinema: the capture and manipulation of time. Nolan’s work is often meta-cinematic, and just as a filmmaker rearranges time, temporal calculation and manipulation is intrinsic to the story, emphasising the importance of time and our use of it. Furthermore, the film undertakes that most fundamental task of cinema, especially science fiction – to transport its audience. Watching the film, I both felt myself transported beyond Earth and to a new perspective on time, all based upon concepts of love and hope. Interstellar is a flawed film, but it is an undeniably affecting and moving experience.

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Expanding and Continuing Part Three: Transforming to Extinction

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I always like to see the positive in movies. Whereas others bemoan the death of narrative cinema (which is nonsense) and complain about overreliance on CGI (which is overly simplistic) or whinge that sequels and remakes have squashed originality, I find plenty to enjoy in mainstream cinema and rarely leave the movie theatre disappointed. But I confess that Michael Bay’s latest entry in the Transformers franchise did that rarest of things – left me bored.

I’ve been a fan of Transformers since I was a child (although I was a bigger fan of M.A.S.K. and Centurions – can we get a big screen adaptation of one of those please), and this has made me sympathetic to the current film franchise. In fact, I loved 2007’s Transformers, which combined 80s nostalgia with contemporary aesthetics and delivered some of the most blistering action sequences of that year (which also included The Bourne Ultimatum, Spider-Man 3, Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End). Since then, the franchise dipped with Revenge of the Fallen (2009) that not only featured racist stereotypes but pointless mysticism and a story that went all over the place before collapsing into incoherent noise (even the director described it as “crap”). Things got slightly better with Dark of the Moon (2011) that was at least more coherent but still suffered from too much in its final (hour long!) battle sequence. Age of Extinction continues the trend of ever-longer films (respectively, the four movies have lasted 144 minutes, 150 minutes, 154 minutes, 165 minutes), and demonstrates the law of diminishing returns as more proves to be less.

I went into Age of Extinction with low expectations because of poor to mediocre reviews, and often find that low expectations are surpassed. I wanted to enjoy the film and it certainly delivers on scale, with huge spaceships looming over Earth and the return of favourites Optimus Prime (voiced again by Peter Cullen) and Bumblebee. These are combined with some decent new Transformers including Hound (John Goodman) and Lockdown (Mark Ryan), although I could have done without the horrible Japanese stereotype Drift (Ken Watanabe). An alien robot with a personality out of human samurai culture, including swords and helmet, that speaks in haikus and calls his leader “Sensei”? Really? If anything, this was more offensive that Skids and Mudflaps in Revenge of the Fallen. The much-touted appearance of the Dinobots was pleasing when it arrived, but they only turned up in the last half hour by which time I’d stopped caring.

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This was the main problem with Age of Extinction, as, despite my goodwill, the film failed to maintain my engagement. My attention wandered over its 165 minute running time, my reactions reduced to “Uh-huh”, “Uh-huh”, “Yes”, “Um-hum”, “How long have we been here?”, “Why did you do that?”, “Hmm”, “There’s still half an hour to go?!” There are some nice concepts, but again and again Ehren Kruger’s script and Michael Bay’s direction flog ideas to death, resurrect them and beat them to death again, or just abandon them. Early in the film, the Transformers are presented as illegal immigrants being pursued by nasty government agents, and this demonstrates that you can include political parallels in mainstream entertainment cinema. Similarly, the financial troubles of the Yaeger family, father Cade (Mark Wahlberg) and daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), allow for real world resonance. But these ideas are quickly abandoned in favour of over-designed alien robots that waste your time messing about. The bickering between the Autobots is tedious and serves no purpose, and the number of moving parts on the Transformers quickly becomes distracting. A robot that transforms into a vehicle is fine, but to have every little piece of them in constant motion actually becomes annoying. Worse, there is a bizarre attempt to humanise the robots and make them somehow biological, which includes blinking, breathing and bleeding. I don’t need Optimus Prime to leak green fluid to know he is injured – he has large holes in his body and has difficulty standing. That makes it pretty clear. This excess reaches its apex during the second act aboard Lockdown’s ship, which features some sort of robot guard dog-hyena type creatures. When those appeared all I could think was “Why, why, why?” Minions fair enough, but savage robot beasts is going way too far.

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Repeatedly, the film suffers in comparison with 2007’s Transformers, which featured running battles that kept things moving. In Age of Extinction, battles occur, chases occur, and they go on and on and on and on. It is always very easy for a film critic, or indeed viewer, to say what would make the film better. It’s incredibly arrogant and presumptuous to assume that I know better than a professional filmmaker about how to do his job. But there is a glaring moment in Age of Extinction when the film could have moved into its climax. Instead, that is only the end of the second act and we have a torturous extension into China (which comes off as remarkably benevolent, clearly the producers had an eye on the lucrative Chinese market). I will not go so far as to say the film should have ended in Chicago (like the last one did), but I would have been happier if it had. I was already bored by the Chicago act, but that may have been because I knew there was more to come so the stakes were too low to excite me. More can be more – I will happily watch the three-hour cut of Avatar – but Transformers: Age of Extinction can best be described as a tedious, bloated, messy headache of a film.

Expression in Editing

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In the space of two days, I recently saw two films that could not be more different. The first was The Raid 2, Gareth Evans’ sequel to his explosive 2012 martial arts adventure. The second was A Story of Children and Film, a documentary by Mark Cousins that merges the conceits of his last previous works, The Story of Film: An Odyssey and The First Movie. The Raid 2 is a fictional drama, a martial arts/crime thriller that delivers a blistering ballet of brutality. Cousins’ documentary is lyrical, free associative and meandering. Both excel at what they do and each film offers particular delights and pleasures, and serve to highlight one of the most important tools in filmmaking – editing.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that the three most important components of any film were script, script and script. While this is a convenient soundbite for the critic who decries overreliance on special effects or glamorous actors, it is overly simplistic to describe cinema as being based primarily on the written word (and besides, Hitch could have been referring to screenplay, shooting script and another form of script). For sure, the written screenplay is important, but many a filmmaker subscribes to the belief that films are made in the editing room, in the assembly of otherwise disparate images. Small wonder that directors form lasting and productive collaborations with their editors, such as Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Mann and Dov Hoenig, and some, including James Cameron, Robert Rodriguez, Steven Soderbergh and Gareth Evans, edit their films themselves.

Sergei Eisenstein argued that the power of cinema lay in the juxtaposition of images rather than the sustained shot, hence his development of montage in such classics as The Battleship Potemkin (1925). Similarly, Evans uses fast cutting to express both the swift blows and dizzying impact of martial arts combat. Films like The Raid 2 are a testament to the merging of combat performance and editing, as the skills of performers like Iko Uwais and Julie Estelle are displayed to dazzling effect, while the cuts between different shots express the physical impact of the blows, leading to a visceral experience. Long takes of athletic prowess are impressive, and frequent in The Raid 2 as well, such as sustained pan shots of a prison yard during a riot as well as a warehouse towards the end of the film. Such shots, however, are generally at a distance, wide angle and encompass much of the cinematic space. Fast editing of close quarters combat helps to create a sense of being in the thick of combat, a vicarious experience for the viewer that gives us the experience of being in the ferocious fights of the film (without the inconvenience of pain).

By contrast, Mark Cousins uses editing to link together seemingly disparate scenes. Early in A Story of Children and Film, Cousins explains that he will not progress through films chronologically, but will be guided by how the behaviour of his niece and nephew reminds him of children in other films. The range of films referenced by Cousins is extraordinary, including An Angel at My Table (Jane Campion, 1990) and The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). I consider myself reasonably familiar with cinema, but the only films referenced in Cousins’ documentary that I had seen were E. T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982) and The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955), making the film something of an education. I was a little disappointed at the omission of films about children and film, such as Hugo (Martin Scorsese, 2011) and Son of Rambow (Garth Jennings, 2007), but Cousins is interested in how film presents children, identifies and extrapolates their shyness, their defiance, their performativity. Editing enables Cousins to draw together his seemingly disparate examples, taking us from Japanese boys chasing dogs to an Iranian girl having a “strop” about goldfish. Cousins’ finale brings together films from various countries about kids with balloons, linking these unrelated movies in a moving and thought-provoking way.

Cousins’ cinematography favours a static camera, both of his niece and nephew in his living room as well as wide angle exterior shots of the Isle of Skye. Evans’ camera is more mobile, taking the viewer into the cinematic space of his drama and, as mentioned above, thrusting us into the thick of battle. Cousins’ camera also creates intimacy through dwelling on the events before it, both in his own footage and the scenes from other films that he refers to. The techniques of these filmmakers serve to draw the viewer in, and invite us to interpret meaning from the assembly of images, the editing both presenting meaning and allowing us to infer from the spaces between the shots.

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Terror in Space

My last post discussed the absence of drama in the survival story of the year’s worst film, After Earth. By contrast, one of the year’s best, Gravity, is a superb survival story. Survival is the only concern in Alfonso Cuarón’s film, as Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) must cope with diminishing oxygen, weightlessness and a debris field that will tear them to pieces. As the opening supertext informs the viewer, in space life is impossible, and anyone with ambitions of being an astronaut might find that Gravity gives them pause for thought.

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Gravity’s screenplay is textbook simple, a brutally basic survival story. Screenwriters Cuarón and his son Jonás use this simple story to structure terrifying set pieces through extraordinary use of cinematic techniques. The opening shot lasts for over ten minutes, as Stone and Kowalsky move gracefully albeit carefully in the void, before the debris collides with the space shuttle and Stone goes into a terrifying spin. I wrote earlier in the year that films like Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips hit me in a visceral way. Much the same is true of Gravity, surely the closest I am ever likely to come to being in space. Rather than following Stone with intense close-ups that focus on her face, Cuarón and his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki frequently opt for either direct POV or subjectively-inflected shots, including a long take that begins outside Stone’s helmet, moves inside it and into her POV, and then out again, allowing the viewer to share her position on a visual, aural and experiential level.

As well as these subjectively inflected shots, we sometimes see Stone spinning in long shots, with no apparent attachment, lifeline or hope. The vastness of space and the smallness of humanity is emphasised in these shots through great depth of field that presents the endless void of space. The 3D (which I have written about disparagingly in the past) enhances this sense of being in the void where one could literally spin and fall for ever. 3D is like any cinematic tool, such as CGI, practical effects, music, sound, etc., and like these other tools, when used judiciously it can enhance the experience. That said, I will be interested to watch Gravity again in 2D, and I expect it will still be effective, not least because of the realistic feature of silence. In space, no one can hear you scream, or indeed anything, and the silent vacuum adds another threatening element. The most dominant sounds are voices, breathing and electronic beeps, which emphasise the isolation of the characters in this utterly alien environment. When collisions take place between the debris and the space craft, rather than the familiar (therefore, comforting) sounds of crashing, there is silence. The most striking use of this silence occurs when a space capsule door is opened and the atmosphere rushes out in a silence that is almost deafening. When viewing grave danger, we are accustomed to hearing it at great volume, whether the sounds are screams, shots, explosions or simply the clatter of things against each other. By eschewing sound, Cuarón further enhances the sense of an alien environment where humans are out of place and out of their depth, entirely at the mercy of gravity. The fantastic technical features, combined with Bullock’s performance, ensured that I felt Stone’s anguish and terror on a physical level with each camera lurch, dip and pan. 

Gravity 4The technical intricacy involved in Gravity is remarkable: in an interview Cuarón explained that camera set-ups and movements were programmed using equipment similar to those used in car assembly, while production stills show Bullock swimming underwater in greenscreen environments in order to simulate zero-gravity motion.

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The attention to detail in the space stations is exquisite, these digital sets appearing both functional and personalised, homes in the most inhospitable environments. Nor is danger ever far away, as not only are oxygen supplies dwindling but the field of debris orbiting Earth repeatedly returns to inflict further damage. The knowledge that the debris is coming, knowledge shared by Stone and the viewer, increases the almost unrelenting tension. There is one, quiet moment of reflection when it appears all hope is lost, which is intensely moving as Stone starts to sink into eternal unconsciousness, her tears seeming to float out of the screen towards the viewer which, again, allows us to share her experience. This moment is brief, however, and the desperate struggle for survival rapidly resumes.

Gravity is cinema at its most beautiful and terrible, taking us to a strange new world in the most visceral and exciting way possible. James Cameron has said that Gravity is the best space movie ever made, and I agree, because it is a film that creates an approximation of being in space, which is relatively rare as most space movies largely take place aboard spaceships. In Gravity, the environment of space itself, along with all its terrible beauty, is created, emphasised and expressed. Cinema at its best is experiential, and the experience of Gravity was one of the most powerful I had this year.

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