Hollywood and cinema in general have been struggling of late when it comes to getting people into movie theaters. After the television scare of the 1950s, when Hollywood was desperate to compete with the instant allure of the idiot box, we’re now in a second similar crisis, a streaming scare, if you will.
With many films, most of them in high definition, available at the click of a button through streaming and VOD services like Netflix, people are more than content with indulging in their visual entertainment for much cheaper than a movie ticket and inside the comfort of their home.
The fact that a lot of popular TV shows like Breaking Bad showcases better writing and sometimes even better technical and artistic prowess than a lot of theatrical releases does not help matters either. As time passes, more and more studios consider releasing their films on streaming or home video closer to, or sometimes even on the same day, as the theatrical release date in order to maximize profits.
During this dark time for the validity of the movie theater comes Gravity, an exhilarating experience from start to finish, a visual and technical tour-de-force, beautiful, gripping, exciting, awe-inspiring and any other over-the-top yet deserving movie review clichés you can possibly think of. If for nothing else, it’s a perfect endorsement for the importance of movie theaters when it comes to fully grasping the art and thrill of the movie going experience.
If theatre owners are smart, they should embrace Gravity as the one film of the year that still proves the relevancy of their business. Finally we have a movie, nay, an experience more than worthy enough to shell out the big bucks in order to be seen on the biggest screen imaginable, preferably on IMAX 3D. If you watch it on your laptop via a crappy CAM torrent video, your opinion on the film does not count, flat and simple.
Taking place entirely around Earth’s orbit, Gravity tells a simple yet perfectly executed story of survival. After a gorgeous opening shot, a single take that must have ran for a good ten minutes as we patiently approach a space shuttle being repaired by astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), debris from a missile attack that destroyed some satellites hits the shuttle and throws Stone off into space with ever decreasing oxygen inside her suit.
With Kowalski’s help, Stone has to somehow get to the Russian space station and make it back to earth in an escape pod. Of course there are many other genuinely surprising and even touching developments, but I would be doing a great disservice if I were to spoil any of them, or even hint at them here.
The way Alfonso Cuaron, the genuinely visionary director of one of the best Harry Potter films with Prisoner of Azkaban, as well as perhaps the greatest science-fiction film of the last ten years with Children of Men, uses the "camera" to capture the scenes taking place in space, which is a big chunk of the running time, is unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Every shot, effortlessly gliding through space, moving fluidly from extreme wide shots to close-ups and back to various different angles, practically turns the audience not into a passive observer, but a silent participant in each harrowing development. A continuous shot of Stone lost in space, spinning out of control, that slides from a medium shot into a POV and then comes back out again is just one example of Cuaron’s dedication to creating a unique and commanding cinematic experience.
It’s not like it was easy for him to bring Gravity to life. After writing the screenplay with his son Jonas, Cuaron thought the project would take under a year to produce. Four years later, the techniques that him and legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki developed still weren’t up to their standards.
So they kept hammering at it until they invented a system called "The Cage" that would keep the actors in a stationary position while moving the lights around them to match their specific movements in space. The digital backgrounds were added later.
On paper, this idea might sound too much like the stilted digital filmmaking of The Star Wars Prequels, 300 or Oz The Great and Powerful, where it looks like we’re watching actors confined to a small warehouse space regardless of the boundless fantastical worlds that were later digitized in. That’s because the actors actually were confined to a small green screen studio and it’s always obvious.
In Gravity, many creative aspects help in letting the audience completely forget that they’re watching a film that was mostly created inside a computer. Cuaron’s fluid camerawork, the realism of the execution, which doesn’t provide any sound effects the way it would happen in space, and the dedication of the performances, especially when it comes to Sandra Bullock, really help sell the execution.
I’ve never been a big fan of Sandra Bullock and I think that her hammy southern mama bear performance in the borderline despicable The Blind Side was completely undeserving of an Oscar. But I have to give credit where credit is due.
When it comes to selling the premise and the tension to the audience, her intense performance provides the key, even more than the impressive visuals. Apparently, Bullock and Cuaron spent months simply practicing the breathing patterns of the character in any given situation and this attention to detail shows on every frame. When it comes to expressing the emotional core of the character, charged by a tragedy in the character’s past, she displays a level of honest tenderness I’ve never seen from her before.
It could have been perfectly serviceable for Cuaron and his son to develop the screenplay as a simple and straightforward thrill ride without much character development or construction of a clear theme. However, Stone’s economically structured character arc is perfect for nailing the themes of survival, rebirth and hope.
After we find out about the tragedy in her past, a surprisingly serene sequence in the middle of the mayhem shows us that the human need for hope and survival does not require any specific religion or ideology and that it’s inherently inside our DNA, or soul, however you want to slice it.
Gravity deserves to be seen on IMAX and in 3D. Yes, THAT 3D, the one that’s hated by film critics everywhere because it usually represents a quick cynical cash grab from studios who cram it in any film they want, whether or not it’s artistically compatible. For Gravity, not only is it artistically compatible, it’s vital to the experience. Who knew that even what appears to be a shameless gimmick could be made grand and unforgettable in the hands of people who know how to use it.
I doubt that there will be a better film than Gravity in 2013.
PS: The trailer embedded below uses sound effects in order to not freak out the potential audience, I guess. The film itself doesn't have any of these effects.