A landmark achievement in special effects filmmaking, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a real wow. Combining ground-breaking space-age f/x with a straightforward B-movie survival plot, this is a rare film that should delight both film lovers looking for something bold and different, and casual audiences seeking more traditional escapist thrills.
Still, it’s almost entirely a two (often one) character piece set entirely in outer space; I’m not sure how much appeal that has for the average moviegoer. But Gravity, even more so than 2001: A Space Odyssey, represents a meeting point of science and, well, fiction. You can believe these events could occur right now; it’s one of the most realistic pieces of sci-fi ever made.
Gravity stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as a pair of astronauts on a mission to repair a broken satellite. The film’s opening scene is one long, unbroken take: as Ryan Stone (Bullock) struggles to make repairs, Matt Kowalski (Clooney) orbits the satellite using a jetpack, flying in close to the camera then swirling away.
“How did they do that?” was my initial response. From the opening scene, I was hooked. The second shot is much like the first.
We see so many special effects in modern films, and are almost always aware of their presence. CGI has become synonymous with cartoon action: what couldn’t be or wasn’t captured on the screen has been added to it Roger Rabbit style, with a slight uptick in animation quality intended to fool us into thinking we’re seeing something that isn’t there. It rarely works as intended.
Gravity employs its effects in a different manner. Throughout most of the opening of the film, my brain tried to figure out what was happening on the screen. The actors aren’t really in outer space – OK, greenscreen. But there they are, floating around the whole screen. OK, cool – they must have simulated some kind of zero gravity environment. But they’re also operating this complicated equipment to move around, and it’s all shot in these long unbroken takes…
At some point, I gave up; the seams weren’t showing. From a filmmaking perspective, one of the things I loved most about this film was getting home and learning about how it was made. But I still have questions. I can’t wait for a behind the scenes documentary on the DVD/blu-ray; in some ways, that might be more fascinating than the film itself.
Of course, the f/x coolness factor isn’t enough to make Gravity a compelling feature. That’s where the story (written by the director and his son, Jonás Cuarón) comes into play. It’s disarmingly straightforward, and yet the uniqueness of the setting makes it incredibly fascinating: it’s a somewhat typical survival tale – think 127 Hours – but set in outer space (and the less you know going in, the better).
The story we can relate to, but the setting – characters floating around out there in space, fighting gravity and flying debris and the sheer difficulty of getting from point A to point B – this is new. We can’t relate to the specifics so well… but the deep down humanistic stuff, the will to survive, that we know. Struggling for survival in this environment is a new and fascinating experience.
Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is truly groundbreaking; I was a little surprised when Life of Pi’s Claudio Miranda won last year’s Oscar for a mostly-CGI experience, but Lubezki has really done something special here. Music is sparsely but effectively used; Steven Price’s low-key original soundtrack hits all the right notes.
I caught Gravity in IMAX 3D, and I highly suggest doing the same. While the 3D is rarely noteworthy (Gravity was originally shot in 2D, and converted in post-production), the sheer size of the IMAX screen creates an incredibly immersive experience. It’s the next best thing to being in outer space.