After a summer of movies in which superheroes bounce H-bombs off their chests without so much as a scratch, two of the best autumn films are stripped-down, white-knuckled scrambles for survival in which death is meted out in fractions and inches. First out of the gate is Alfonso Cuarón's astonishing "Gravity", with Sandra Bullock as an astronaut stranded 375 miles above Earth after debris ploughs into the shuttle she is repairing. It doesn't just shred the shuttle, it does so noiselessly, the first sign that this is to be a space film like no other, a ballet that would be beautiful were it not so out-and-out thrilling. It's a hold-your-breath stunner, a descendant of the Blue Danube sequence in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", only much faster and much deadlier.
Time has not been kind to "2001". Its technology superseded, all that remains are its ponderous symbolism, stop-start narrative, gay computer and eye-catching cameo by Leonard Rossiter, suggesting that mankind is well on its way to turning outer space into a series of white-panelled bedsits. It's a movie assembled by a very bored God. Kubrick looked into the deep of space and saw trippy spiritual allegory; Cuarón sees a cold, hostile vacuum that will kill you in seconds. For all its majesty—and the cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, luxuriates in long, dizzying, gyroscopic takes that spin with each jolt of the action—what is most impressive about "Gravity" is its minimalism. No aliens arrive, no space ships, no heavenly foetuses hove into view: just Bullock, curled in a foetal ball, inside a derelict space station, her oxygen running out, her breath fogging up her mask. In space, not only can they not hear you scream, but there is no they. It's just you.
The minimalism is even bolder in J.C. Chandor's "All is Lost", with Robert Redford all at sea after a container ploughs into his sailing boat, tearing a hole in its side. Oh, and there's a storm on the horizon. Chandor gave us the marvellous "Margin Call", a polyphonic Wall Street drama whose voices ranged from Kevin Spacey to Stanley Tucci. As if to prove his dexterity, Chandor now tacks in the opposite direction: a mere 30 pages of script, only three or four lines of dialogue ("I'm sorry", "I fought to the end") and just one cast member—called simply "Our Man" in the credits, in a nice nod to the silents. Still, what a cast member, his face creased and craggy, hair bleached as if by the light of its own sun. Redford seems finally ready to be looked at, after all these years of being shot in soft-focus like a visiting demi-god, and the result is a wonderfully evocative mixture of physiognomy and topography. He looks shipwrecked on his own rocks, although you do wonder if he couldn't navigate his way out of the whole mess by using the planes of his chin as a sundial.
Both films owe something to "Life of Pi", Ang Lee’s Kiplingesque Oscar-winner about surviving in stormy seas with only a Bengal tiger for company. What's with all these survival tales? Did I miss a Jack London convention? The mere fact of these films' existence is a survival story itself, reflecting the hard-scrabble realities of a business almost wholly geared to the production of international blockbusters. I've never been one for the "death-by-blockbuster" line taken by critics like Peter Biskind who, in his book "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", found blockbusters guilty of "infantilising the audience, reconstituting the spectator as child, then overwhelming him and her with sound and spectacle". That view bears a suspicious resemblance to the missiles aimed at cinema at its birth, when this squalling brat of a medium, addicted to action, was accused of vulgarising its audience.
"'Star Wars' is basically a silent movie, was designed as a silent movie," George Lucas told me when I interviewed him for my book "Blockbuster", by which he meant not that it was soundless—the last time I checked, it featured a bold sound design by Ben Burtt—but that it was born of an essentially visual grammar, that allowed it to circle the globe, much like the earliest silent-movie sensations: "Potemkin", "Caligari", Chaplin's "Gold Rush".
In many ways, the blockbuster era is the silent era on steroids: we've seen more technological change, generated by more spigots of cash, than at any time since the advent of the talkies. And our best film-makers—Lee, Cuarón, James Cameron—are not holed up with the critics, mourning the days when John Cassavetes could spend three weeks improvising a two-hander about marital stress with recent graduates of the Actors Studio. They're out there catching surf, beating the blockbusters at their own game, marrying cutting-edge 3D spectacle to the kind of elemental narrative that first galvanised cinema-goers when D.W. Griffith put Lillian Gish on an ice-floe and set both hurtling towards the edge of the falls in "Way Down East" (1920). Griffith shot 2,000 feet of film over two months, then spliced the results into one of the most riveting sequences Hollywood had seen. Both "Gravity" and "All is Lost" inherit his mantle. They're 21st-century silents, blissfully chatter-free, cutting through the bluster of a cinema grown slack with mere thrills and spills and restoring a sense of rapt, imperilled wonder. They've made the movies dangerous again.
Gravity opens in Britain Nov 8th, All is Lost Nov 29th