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'Gravity': It Definitely Delivers

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I went off to the multiplex over the weekend to see Gravity, fully expecting to be underwhelmed by a film that’s been exceptionally hyped. I walked out of the theatre dumbstruck, wondering how director Alfonso Cuarón pulled this thing off and impressed with how, a day later, I was still in its grip. If no double meaning of the word gravity was intended, it certainly works out that way. I’m thinking of seeing it again.

In some films with aviation or space themes, an aviation-savvy viewer has to suspend disbelief—if not switch off critical thought entirely—to accept the storyline. Gravity should require that, because it takes such liberties with the laws of physics as to merit howls from even those of us supremely tolerant of Hollywood excess. But, oddly, it doesn’t. I think that’s because in exchange for such a masterful job of putting the viewer in space, ignoring the physical impossibilities is a willingly small price to pay. I’m not even going to mention them.

Why does this film work so well? Part of it relates to the sheer, jaw-dropping majesty of the photography. I hesitate to use the phrase special effects because Gravity goes so far beyond that, it’s really in its own realm. Gravity is but 90 minutes long, which, by modern standards is short. The story line is taut and unlayered; pure man against nature or man against machine. Actually, woman against both, since Sandra Bullock carries Gravity almost solo, with little spoken dialog other than early scenes with George Clooney and verbalized thoughts after Clooney’s character drifts off, literally. Cuarón had to resist entreaties from the studio to lard up the story with a love interest or more interaction with mission control.  With no plot sidings or outside communication, Bullock’s character is ever more isolated, intensifying the emotional impact on the viewer. She's alone and facing the almost impossible challenge of returning to planet Earth hovering just outside the spacecraft window. She may be playing an astronaut, but she's really a metaphor for any person under extreme duress.

Apollo 13 was the last great space movie and its weightless scenes were convincing because they were actually weightless. They were shot in short takes in an aircraft flying parabolic arcs, which must have been exhausting. That wouldn’t work in Gravity because Cuarón pre-visualized long, continuous tracking shots that give the film its expansive depth. Moreover, Bullock has a fear of flying, ruling out in-aircraft shooting.

For principle photography, Cuarón and his technical team devised a giant light box structure—essentially a small house lined with flat-screen LED TVs—into which the actors were suspended on 12-wire harnesses. Like human puppets, the actors were manipulated by crews and robotically controlled cameras got the shots from multiple angles. Both cameras and actors moved. The harness wires were removed digitally during editing. Some of the segments were also filmed underwater in deep pools. In this interview, George Clooney described the acting challenge as being able to remain non-plussed and in character as a camera the size of a small truck approaches at 35 mph and stops six inches from your face.  Viewers who don’t know this may not fully appreciate the quality of acting this film required. Bullock nails it in what she has described as one of the most physically difficult roles of her career.

The space-knowledgeable viewer, understanding the relentless harshness of low earth orbit, will appreciate the raw challenge the astronauts face when their ride to earth—the Space Shuttle—is destroyed by satellite debris. While that’s the underlying plot conflict, Cuarón’s skilled manipulation of the light to match what we think it would be like in orbit and the convincing movements of weightlessness make Gravity the visual gobsmacker it really is. He bothered to tend to details, too. There's one brief throw-away shot in which a fire develops in a space station electrical panel, appearing as small globules of flame, just as you imagine it would.

We saw Gravity in 3D, but as I noted in reviewing Planes, I’d like to see it in standard view, too. The 3D isn’t that spectacular and it reduces the film’s luminescence, giving it a darker tone. I wonder if some of the detail is lost in exchange for the 3D.

Cuarón spent more than five years on the project and was so consumed by it that he says he’s done with space movies. Maybe so. But I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the innovative technology he pioneered in making Gravity. At least I sure hope not. The technical creativity is simply stunning.

Join the conversation.  Read others' comments and add your own.

Comments (11)

Paul; I was totally impressed with the scenes of space. I saw it in 3d and , like you, didn't think it added that much, especially for almost double the price. I would pay double or more to see it on Imax, that would be amazing. The shots on Imax at the Kennedy visitor's center at the cape are mind-blowing. Last fall I saw the Reno races on Imax at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, was a real spectacular.

Joe Sikora

Posted by: Joe Sikora | October 27, 2013 8:39 PM    Report this comment

Saw it in IMAX 3D, it was simply breathtaking. Look forward to the DVD so I can go back over the details that are included in each scene, but this is one you MUST see in a theater - watching it on the small screen simply will not do it justice. The IMAX visuals were phenomenal; however, the sound - even the silence between the chaos - completes the full immersion experience. Bullock did a marvelous job, you simply have to see this performance to understand.

Posted by: Ronald Horton | October 28, 2013 8:16 AM    Report this comment

Here's a nice back story that may explain (part of) why the movie has been so well received:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/15/astronaut-cady-coleman-sandra-bullock-gravity_n_3922654.html

Posted by: Dave Scott | October 28, 2013 9:16 AM    Report this comment

Actually, Googling around on that, they are calling it IMAX 3D remastered to standard screen size. So large screen IMAX--the three-story screen--evidently isn't released yet.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 28, 2013 9:55 AM    Report this comment

Actually, the director decided not to use the "Vomit Comet" to film weightless scenes. Instead they relied on old fashion cables and green screen, along with painstaking frame-by-frame digital hand work. That's according to an interview with Sandra Bullock. And, yes, it was a hell off a ride....

Posted by: David Comarow | October 28, 2013 10:00 AM    Report this comment

David, not green screen. With green screen, they'd get screen spillover and they couldn't get the back and sidelight right. All of those shots are against a real image displayed on the LED screens.

"There was no way we could use greenscreen because you would get the green backing. Because of the camera moves and everything moving around her and everywhere, you would get green spill all over her, and you just wouldn't get the lighting you need at all."

http://www.fxguide.com/featured/gravity/

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | October 28, 2013 10:46 AM    Report this comment

Was Scott Ernest in the movie?

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | October 28, 2013 12:54 PM    Report this comment

Rafeal, I see what you did there. Haha!

Posted by: Jason Baker | October 28, 2013 2:34 PM    Report this comment

Not much to add except that I'm also going again! Apparently the repeat viewing rates for this movie are particularly high ... no wonder. A simple story and I agree that the liberties taken with physics are understandable and forgiveable.

Posted by: john hogan | October 28, 2013 5:37 PM    Report this comment

I really haven't heard much about this movie (guess it's either not that well advertised, or I just don't watch TV or go to the movies that much), but I'm glad to hear it's worth seeing. I'll likely be watching it this weekend, though just the 2D version. After having seen 2 or 3 movies in 3D, I've decided that none of them really add anything to experience, and in some ways take away from them (reduced brightness/contrast). Maybe it it wasn't nearly double the price...

Posted by: Gary Baluha | October 29, 2013 10:45 AM    Report this comment

The 3D version is great. Thanks for recommending this thriller.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | November 3, 2013 7:48 PM    Report this comment

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