'Gravity': It Definitely Delivers
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.