Of space, pirates & slavery

Second Take
Last Updated 26 October 2013, 14:42 IST

I can’t think of a movie that felt so much like a masterpiece turn suddenly into something so ordinary. But that was Gravity for me.

Watching the first 45 minutes, I thought: This is a science-fiction masterpiece unfolding before our very eyes. And then, just like that, the movie turned into nothing. Its director, Alfonso Cuaron, had a brilliant premise going: a movie about astronauts floating in space. In 3D. (Gravity isn’t going to work anywhere as well in 2D).

Every science-fiction movie we’ve seen before has its characters inside a space ship or exploring a new planet (or a moon), but how much footage do we see of astronauts dangling in space outside the spaceship? Invariably, it has always been just for a couple of minutes when an astronaut steps outside the ship to repair the module. And yet, every little bit of footage I have seen of someone dangling in space has always felt thrilling: there in deep, infinite space, without gravity, floating alone but with a view of the earth and surrounded by stars.

But no movie before Gravity ever thought of doing this. Cuaron and his son (who co-wrote the script) have us watching two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) spinning in space outside the craft for over half the movie. The effect is awe-inspiring even as it leaves you giddy — several times I found myself taking my 3D glasses off for a few seconds to stave off the feeling of falling headlong into deep space. The movie’s great triumph is to make you feel you are right there alongside these astronauts free falling in space. I haven’t seen anyone use 3D this realistically and effectively.

As the movie unfolds, you can only think of Kubrick and 2001: A Space Odyssey; there is a moment when Clooney is falling fast into space, out of control, to certain death, but he can’t help telling Bullock on the radio from his vantage point above the earth, “You’ve got to see the sun on the Ganges.” What goes wrong ultimately with Gravity?

The astronauts get inside their space station and after that, though Bullock will have to face crisis after crisis before she touches Earth, it all plays out like any other Hollywood disaster movie. Sandra Bullock inside a spaceship could well be Sandra Bullock inside a bus (think Speed in space) or a train or a plane. If only Gravity had stayed in space for all its length, it would have been the masterpiece it set out to be.

A new movie I regretted seeing is Captain Phillips, a fact-based thriller starring Tom Hanks. I had actually been eagerly waiting to see what the next new thriller by Paul Greengrass — the director of The Bourne Supremacy and Green Zone — would turn out to be, and now that it is here, I’m repelled by its conservative politics. Captain Phillips, a thriller about Somali pirates hijacking an American cargo ship, plays out like a jingoist Hollywood thriller.

Greengrass, a British director whose roots lie in films like The Murder of Stephen Lawrence and Bloody Sunday — movies that challenged and shook authoritarian governments and corrupt public institutions, not to forget Green Zone, a dramatisation of the lies of the Bush administration — has made a surprisingly right-wing thriller in Captain Phillips. It’s a gripping film, but what drew him to a plot that shows American forces taking down a small bunch of scraggly Somali pirates?

Now a crew member of the cargo ship has even alleged (in New York Post) that Captain Phillips was not the big hero the movie portrays him to be. Critics have pointed out that underlying what looks like regressive politics in the movie is more a sophisticated political statement from Greengrass.

The Guardian critic notes, “For all its action aesthetics and nail-biting, gut-wrenching tension, this is on some level a film about globalisation, about what happens when the paths of the very poor and the very rich intersect in the crossfire of world economics.” A Hijacking, a Danish thriller that came out just a few months before Captain Phillips, and also dealing with another instance of Somali sea piracy, feels like a version that is much less one-sided.

The most critically-acclaimed movie among all the new releases seems to be 12 Years a Slave starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. It’s based on a ‘1853 American slave narrative by Solomon Northup, who in 1841, was kidnapped and sold into hellish servitude and dehumanising cruelty.’

Except for one critic, the brilliant contrarian African-American culture critic Armond White, who has criticised the movie for fetishising the suffering of slaves, there’s been nothing but high praise for the movie from all the top critics, who’ve marked it as the definitive movie on slavery. (And an antidote to Tarantino’s Django Unchained).

Armond White writes: “Depicting slavery as a horror show, 12 Years a Slave belongs to the torture porn genre... and is being sold (and mistaken) as part of the recent spate of movies that pretend ‘a conversation about race’. The only conversation this film inspires would contain howls of discomfort.”

Critics have reacted strongly to his review, raising objections to the way White characterises the film. I haven’t had a chance to see the film yet, but I’m curious to see if White is right.

(Published 26 October 2013, 14:42 IST)

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