Just before Gravity was released in 2013, there was, among all the anticipation, a whisper of concern about how a film that focused mainly on one person in space was going to hold our attention (given that most people are still recovering from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey). As it turned out of course, Gravity was a cinematic feat; Sandra Bullock carried the role marvellously, the emotion was palpable and the tension unrelenting. But there is no doubt that the real essence of Gravity was space itself. Alfonso Cuaròn’s focus had to be on convincing the audience of the continual threat posed by the awful, empty vastness of Dr Stone’s environment; without that, it would have been like watching someone get stuck in a lift.
Gravity is a brilliant example of when visuals are not simply used by the filmmaker, but are integral to the storyline itself. When this is done well, we get some of not just the visually best films in history, but some of the generally best, too. When Peter Jackson first took the world to Middle Earth with The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of The Ring in 2001, one of the most remarkable things about viewers’ reactions was how many felt able to claim that it was like seeing their own imagination cast onto the screen in front of them. The only explanation for how this is possible is that Jackson paid such attention to detail in his recreation of Tolkien’s world – of its landscapes, buildings, creatures and events – that he essentially created the Platonic form of Middle Earth.
Christopher Nolan’s science fiction thriller Inception is another aesthetic masterpiece, with the features of the characters’ own minds, the physical effects of each dream ‘level’ upon the next and the camera-based changes to the light and colour of each dream state all combining to produce something that is mind-blowing and yet somehow entirely plausible. (Despite the stunning scale of the finished result, Nolan had actually aimed to keep as many of the special effects as practical as possible – as opposed to relying on CGI – to allow for greater attention to detail of the sequences. Clearly it worked, but what’s the bet that his first thought about the film is usually, “Yeah – Paris folds up”).
In 1999 the Wachowski brothers used a ground-breaking combination of ultra-slow “bullet time” sequences, gravity defying camera angles, materials that could be made to ‘ripple’ when blown up and high resolution digital capturing to create the astounding virtual reality of The Matrix. The poignant and understated Europa Report interweaves a mixture of found footage, painstakingly researched sets and beautifully crafted models for its version of space exploration, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is infused with Terry Gilliam’s hallucinatory conjurings, and whereas Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi was once considered physically impossible to bring to adapt to screen, Ang Lee and his team walked away from the 85th Academy Awards with Best Director – and Best Visual Effects. Game, set, match.