Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Release date: October 4, 2013
U.S. box office: $274 million (6th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $716.3 million (8th best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 217 days
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 97
Metacritic score: 96
Letterboxd average grade: 4/5
“However unintentionally, Cuarón has made a welcome corrective to a season—years, really—of special-effects-driven films that treat individual lives like so many pixels. Though set against the vastness of the cosmos, Gravity keeps its scope narrow, asking viewers to invest deeply in the characters’ safety and the value of their lives in a situation where every breath matters, and every choice might bring them closer to safety—or bring about disaster. The film uses the cutting edge of technology to take viewers to the far reaches of the human experience, but also to create a sense of empathy, of investing in the life of another person.” —Keith Phipps
“Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has a film so vividly and realistically transmitted the feeling of being lost in the cosmos. Together Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También) and his longtime collaborator Lubezki (who also works with Terrence Malick) make stellar use of advanced filmmaking technology.” —Peter Howell, Toronto Star
“The most gifted directors from the silent days to Spielberg have distinguished the film frame from the stage proscenium. In Gravity, Cuarón dissolves the frame itself. He employs 3-D as well as robot and digital technology to turn the area between the screen and your seat into a force field, and to make the visual depth of his scenes extend, as Buzz Lightyear would say, ’to infinity… and beyond!’ The results will make you leap in fear and jump for joy.” —Michael Sragow, Orange County Register
“Unlike Cuarón’s extraordinary Children of Men, [Gravity] doesn’t quite pull off its ambitious effort to combine formal inventiveness, heart-pounding action, and intimate human storytelling. But it succeeds thrillingly at the first two of those categories, and only misses the mark on the last because it tries a little too hard—which is certainly a welcome respite from the countless sci-fi thrillers that privilege the human story not at all.” —Dana Stevens, Slate
Cuarón’s previous film, Children Of Men, distinguished itself with several stunning long takes, and in the run-up to Gravity’s release, much of the early buzz focused around the filmmaker and his director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, topping themselves with even longer and more elaborate shots. Months before Gravity opened in theaters, film sites were hyping the fact that it opened with a “single 17-minute” take. When a Gravity preview played Comic-Con, headlines boasted about its “intense long takes.”
When the film arrived, it was as advertised; the movie’s opening—and arguably its highlight—is a seemingly endless long take set in Earth’s orbit, where a group of astronauts including mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) work to upgrade the Hubble Telescope. Dr. Stone’s improvements to the Hubble will supposedly give NASA a “new set of eyes to scan the edge of the universe.” In its best moments, Gravity’s groundbreaking combination of digital effects and long-take cinematography feels like a similar leap forward for movies.
An unseen missile strike on a Russian satellite sparks a “cloud of debris,” which sets off a catastrophic chain of events, imperiling the Hubble mission. Without a cut, Cuarón observes the Space Shuttle Explorer as it’s struck by a storm of debris, sending the jib arm holding Bullock’s Stone pinwheeling off into space. As the arm loops around, Bullock’s flailing body repeatedly rotates into perfect close-up. The camera then syncs with her movements, spinning the Earth and the rest of the background into a dizzying swirl of light and shadow. Even before Cuarón’s camera performs the miraculous feat of zooming into and through the glass on Stone’s helmet (without a cut!) to show viewers a first-person perspective of the destruction, he’s already given them a palpable taste of the harrowing chaos.
After Gravity debuted, much of the discussion about the film shifted to the realities—or lack thereof—of the film’s science. Famous astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted a number of “Mysteries of #Gravity,” and took issue with its numerous inaccuracies. (“Nearly all satellites orbit Earth west to east yet all satellite debris portrayed orbited east to west,” read a typical Tyson tweet.) Many other sites followed suit with their own “Gravity Fact Check”s, nitpicking all the things the film gets wrong about space and debris and fire extinguishers. There are legitimate issues with the plot (which we’ll examine later), but most of these complaints were absurd—problems that literally only an astrophysicist would find. Gravity is fiction. It is meticulously researched and handsomely mounted fiction, but it is fiction nonetheless. If the direction of satellite debris ruins your enjoyment of Gravity, you should rethink going to the movie theater for any reason whatsoever.
Gravity is a remarkable visual achievement. While the visceral impact of those visuals on a giant screen can’t possibly be replicated at home, the movie still looks good on Blu-ray. Actually, in some ways Gravity looks better at home than it did in the theater. Shrunken down for the small screen, any seams in the incredible visual effects by Tim Webber and the team at Framestore are rendered invisible. Select freeze-frames could be persuasively passed off as nature photography.
The illusion of Gravity should be obvious from the very first frame—the movie wasn’t shot in space, and Sandra Bullock and George Clooney aren’t astronauts—but it isn’t. The action looks so real, and the drama quickly becomes so intense, it’s easy to forget that nearly everything onscreen was generated in a computer, rather than recorded in Earth’s orbit. In time, these effects may age; movies that were considered high-tech in the 1950s sometimes look laughable today. But that certainly hasn’t happened yet; one year later, Gravity is still stunning.
All the events in Gravity take place in space, so most of the exciting moments—explosions, collisions—come without the bombastic sound effects audiences have come to expect from blockbusters. Cuarón fills those silences with Steven Price’s moody electronic score. On first viewing, I thought Gravity would have worked better without the music, if it had let those eerie moments of quiet play out in full. This time, I admired the way Price’s music gradually builds along with the onscreen tension, and how it eventually creates a Pavlovian response. When that score begins to rise, viewers know something bad is about to happen.
Sandra Bullock’s performance is similarly impressive. Without watching extensive behind-the-scenes materials, it’s hard to know how much is Bullock inside an actual spacesuit, or Bullock composited onto a digital avatar. That’s to the movie’s credit; the real Sandra Bullock merges completely with the CGI one, so the audience can quickly get caught up in her life-or-death struggle. And even when Bullock is just a disembodied voice from a bulky spacesuit (one made out of pixels, no less), she conveys real fear, panic, and regret. Her transformation over the course of the film from tentative neophyte to determined survivor is genuinely inspiring, as are the film’s dramatic final scenes.
A common complaint about digital effects is that they carry no weight. Practical effects are comparatively tactile; digital ones are not. But the computer-generated imagery in Gravity lives up to the film’s title. There’s a tangible weight to the Explorer and the International Space Station—and to their harrowing destructions during the film’s repeated debris storms, which carry a genuine sense of danger as they blast through the frame. At times, it’s very hard to believe that what appears onscreen in Gravity never existed outside of a computer hard drive.
Much of the credit for that belongs to Cuarón, Lubezki, and Webber, who paid painstaking attention not only to how things look, but how they interact in the merciless vacuum of space. Some of Gravity’s most dramatic moments involve the simplest ideas. Cuarón gets huge mileage out of playing with the fundamental laws of physics—how a person whirling through space will keep right on whirling past every possible handhold, because there’s no force to act upon them and shove them in the right direction. As debris flies through the frame, the astronauts remain at the mercy of their bulky, sluggish suits. It’s like realizing a car crash is about to happen and being unable to stop it; the emotional toll that takes on the audience is enormous. At times, a matter of centimeters determines who lives and who dies. A scientist might quibble with how certain events play out, but to a layman, the stakes are enormous.
Gravity still looks good on the small screen. But it doesn’t feel as good. Part of the reason Cuarón’s film became such a phenomenal hit was because it was designed as a theatrical event. With 3-D projection—and in some locations, IMAX—Gravity was an immersive experience. In theaters, the film really gave a sense of weightlessness, as if any given viewer was a third astronaut working on the Hubble alongside Bullock and Clooney. I remember feeling so disoriented while watching the movie at the IMAX in Lincoln Square that I started gripping my armrests just to steady myself.
Even the best 3-D television on the planet (with the best 3-D Blu-ray player) couldn’t hope to re-create the sensation of watching Gravity in a giant movie theater; my fairly decent 2-D television and 2-D Blu-ray player certainly didn’t. In that context, Gravity is still a solid spectacle, but not an overwhelming one. Watching Gravity on television is maybe the best argument to date for the necessity of the theatrical experience. To use an incredibly awful metaphor, it brings what previously seemed like a masterpiece down to earth.
While the film’s visual strengths are muted by the size of the home-video screen, its weaknesses are magnified. Without its more transportive qualities to hook and hold viewers, the holes in Gravity’s story become far more apparent. These aren’t the minor flubs of science; we’re talking about the basic building blocks of storytelling. The amazing 17-minute opening that garnered so much attention prior to Gravity’s release—that’s flawless. The rest of Stone’s journey of survival, not so much. If just that 17-minute single take was released as a standalone film, it might be the greatest science-fiction short in the history of cinema. It’s a true show-stopper. But the show isn’t over yet.
Cold and sad as it is, the end of the 17-minute take—Stone floating, scared and alone, into the inky desolation of space—is probably the only realistic ending to the scenario presented by Gravity. The space shuttle is destroyed, communication with Earth is nonexistent, almost the entire crew is dead, and if the survivors last long enough, the debris is coming back in 90 minutes. If Gravity had ended there, it would have been a bummer, but a believable one. But 17 minutes isn’t much of a movie, so Gravity continues. And it finds ways to prolong the suspense and the incredible visual splendor, but in the harsh light of the day (and the less-flattering confines of a 40-inch television) they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
With little preparation and barely any guidance, Stone manages to scratch and claw her way into the International Space Station right as it catches on fire. She narrowly escapes the fire in an escape pod (which, conveniently for the plot, is too damaged to return to Earth), and prepares to fly to a nearby Chinese space station. But the escape pod gets tangled in a parachute that accidentally deployed, so Stone must attempt another spacewalk to free it—right as the debris storm from earlier returns for another go-around. The escape pod’s engines don’t work, but she jury-rigs a workaround and arrives at the Chinese space station right as it’s beginning to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere, and also right as the debris storm returns for a third time.
The best line in the entire film is when Bullock screams in frustration “You gotta be kidding me!” after the ISS pod’s engines fail to fire (after she’s almost been killed trying to free it in a debris storm [after she barely escaped a space-station inferno (after she almost died from running out of oxygen [while she watched her fellow astronaut sacrifice himself to save her (after his jet pack ran out of fuel at the exact moment they arrived at the space station, leaving them with no brakes [after the shuttle was destroyed in a fluke accident])])]). You are right, Sandra Bullock; you’ve gotta be kidding me.
Any one of these twists would feel like a coincidence, the sort of thing people complain about to their moviegoing companions on the ride home from the theater. This movie has all of these twists happening in rapid succession. It’s absolutely ridiculous. The journey Gravity takes audiences on is frequently thrilling and beautiful. But it’s also shockingly silly. On the big screen, it was easy to get swept up in it anyway. At home, Gravity feels a lot more like a very well-crafted (but still sort of dopey) blockbuster.
It’s impossible to predict how time will weigh on films, whether they’ll grow or shrink in stature as tastes and popular culture shift around them. But in Gravity’s case, it’s hard to envision a future where, despite its rapturous reviews, overwhelming buzz, enormous box office, and trophy case full of awards, it becomes a hallowed cultural landmark. That’s because Gravity is first and foremost a shining example of what a theatrical viewing experience can be—and it’s no longer a movie you can watch in a theatrical setting. One year later, the film is already a curious object, a magnificent creation that can only be screened in less-than-optimal circumstances. That’s true of every movie, but few movies’ power diminish as noticeably at home as Gravity’s. Everyone (myself included) told their friends and loved ones to see Gravity on the big screen. Who would ever recommend someone watch it on an iPhone? Barring frequent revivals on the repertory circuit (or a conversion to virtual reality for something like the Oculus Rift), a very good film could be doomed to obscurity.
In a way, that would be a fitting outcome. Gravity’s primary theme, announced by an opening title card, is that “life in space is impossible.” Gravity’s first shots are gorgeous: astronauts floating through the void while the Earth looms, bright and blue, in the background. On a dime, things turn deadly, and for the next 80 minutes, one calamity after another befalls Dr. Stone. Life in space is indeed impossible. Sometimes it’s impossibly beautiful. At other times, it’s impossibly deadly.
But life on Earth is impossible, too; as Stone later reveals, her young daughter died in a fluke playground accident. She was running, slipped, and banged her head, and that was it. No matter who or where you are in this universe, things can go from wonderful to horrible in an instant. If Gravity fell from seven-time Academy Award-winner to historical footnote, it would only validate that worldview.
If Gravity does endure, it will likely be on the strength of those jaw-dropping long takes, which simultaneously mark the movie as both cutting-edge and something of a relic. Only modern technology could produce shots this long and complex, but only a throwback to an earlier era of action filmmaking would go 17 minutes without a single cut. In an time where chaos and frenetic editing have become blockbusters’ stock in trade, Gravity stands alone as a tribute to the power of coherent, fluid images—and to the power of sitting in a darkened room full of strangers, sharing an experience.