Comic book sci-fi movies may still get away with CG cartoons, but any film that aspires to real drama in space must look to the head-spinning visual effects in “Gravity” for their model.
What’s more, Cuarón and his crew hitched these effects to a story of survival as elemental and dramatic as any Jack London penned about human struggles with nature. It’s one of the most gratifying and terrifying film experiences in many years: Gratifying because it shows all the medium is capable of and terrifying because … well, go see the movie and find out.
The film stars Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and the vast emptiness of space. That’s it.
Well, this space is anything but empty actually. All sorts of junk and debris are up there, which creates the initial problem.
But there’s no oxygen and thus no sound other than squawks on headsets. Six hundred kilometers above planet Earth the view is spectacular, but when two astronauts find themselves stranded all by themselves, this gives a new meaning to the word “alone.”
The story, written by the director and his son Jonás, starts with one of the most amazing single-take shots in movie history. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), attached to a robotic arm on the Shuttle Explorer, is installing a new scanning system while veteran commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney), on his final mission, is having a grand time testing a jet pack that lets him zip around the craft without the usual tethers.
For many minutes the camera loops gracefully around the shuttle as Matt jokes and Ryan diligently takes care of business despite vital signs monitored back in Houston indicating she is less than well. Let’s just get this done, she says. Clearly, these are two vastly differently personalities.
Then news arrives of the intentional destruction of an aging satellite elsewhere in Earth’s orbit — the Russians get the blame for this ill-considered disposal — which has sent shrapnel-like debris on a collision course with the orbiting shuttle.
Houston alerts the crew to the danger but not nearly fast enough. The shuttle is destroyed in a spectacular and tense sequence as Ryan, her cord severed, tumbles into emptiness. After Matt just barely saves her, they struggle back to the shuttle only to discover it’s been utterly destroyed.
Thus begins a thrilling, moment-by-moment battle for survival against nearly impossible odds by the two astronauts now tethered to nothing save each other.
From the ruined Explorer the two set out for a Russian Soyuz capsule. Their odyssey takes place in a vast expanse with a beckoning Earth posed benignly in the background.
As befits a veteran astronaut and commander, Kowaski is steady and calm, joking to buck up the courage of his frightened fellow astronaut who is on her maiden voyage. But you detect a note of resignation in her voice, as if she senses death’s presence and is willing to meet it on her own terms.
It takes a while for her back story to come out but she does have an inner conflict that needs resolution before the outward conflict, the tremendous obstacles and challenges of survival, can be solved.
No doubt American Cinematographer will feature a special issue to explain the tricks and inventions by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, visual effects supervisor Tim Webber and their crews. But essentially the film is a hybrid of live action, computer animation and CGI with sets, backgrounds and costumes rendered digitally.
A unique 12-wire rig enables puppeteers to “float” an actor, thus mimicking weightlessness while a specially built Light Box is able to light sets in a way that makes sense for the continual sunrises and sunsets and the Earth’s bounce light.
So Lubezski (“The Tree of Life,” “The Children of Men”), who favors long, fluid camera movements, continues to do so in this man-made deep space. Throughout the opening sections of the movie and whenever the astronauts are “walking” in space, you have no sense of edits as you normally do in a movie.
The camera floats around the astronauts going into extreme close-ups, then creating almost point-of-view shots before returning into more objective ones. There is a complete seamlessness to it; there may be cuts but you don’t experience them.
Objects and characters roll through space without any real sense of up or down. It’s as fascinating as it is frightening. Cineastes will no doubt create repeat business for Warner Bros. just to see if they can spot more intricate details in the amazing mise-en-scène.
For once all those gimmicks — 3D, Imax and sound piped out of seemingly every crevice in a movie house — work to make the experience as breathtaking as possible. Steve Price’s electronic score almost mimics the sound of Bullock drawing her rhythmic, fearful breaths.
If movies are headed, as many experts believe, into two tiers — spectacles for mass consumption in expensive state-of-the-art cinemas while all other films or specialty productions go either to marginalized art houses or platforms such as DVDs, cable, downloads and VOD to be viewed outside of movie theaters — then let’s hope the spectacle makers will aim for the heights now defined by Alfonso Cuarón and his amazing new film, “Gravity.”
Opens: October 4, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: Warner Bros. Pictures presents an Esperanto Filmoj/Heyday Films production
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriters: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Producers: Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman
Executive producers: Nikki Penny, Chris DeFaria, Stephen Jones
Director of photography: Emmanuel Lubezki
Production designer: Andy Nicholson
Music: Steven Price
Visual effects supervisor: Tim Webber
Costume designer: Jany Temime
Editors: Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger
PG-13 rating, 90 minutes