If you’re reading the glowing reviews of “Gravity” and trying to decide whether or not to go, this review might help you decide. If you have always loved the thought of space and admired the aerial views of Earth taken from space, then there is much to like in this film. There’s no question that the cinematography will garner Oscar nominations, come spring, as well it should. In that respect, it reminded me of “Life of Pi,”only with a less well-developed story line. It does contain many lengthy shots, for which Cuaron is famous..
If you enjoyed Tom Hanks, stranded and alone on an island in “Castaway” (minus Wilson the soccer ball), you’ll do fine with one character holding the screen for a long time ( i.e., Sandra Bullock). You won’t mind the fact that the plot puts Bullock onscreen, alone, in solitary for a major portion of the movie and she sometimes is portrayed as a bit ditzy, considering she has earlier been described as “a genius.”
It is also a fact that 3D was meant for movies like Gravity. The scene where Bullock’s tears float towards you, alone, is worth the extra money for the 3D ticket. Those of you saying, “Oh, I’ll just stay home and watch it when it comes out on video” are not true film buffs. You will miss out. There are some films that cry out for a big screen (and big sound) treatment. This is one of them. Cuaron acknowledged that he always intended to shoot in 3D, saying, “Experiencing this film in 2D is only getting about 20% of the experience of Gravity,” (which speaks to my earlier point about watching it at home).
Director Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican-born 52-year-old director, took on a huge job when he decided to film Gravity. He and his team repurposed robotic arms used in automobile factories to carry cameras and lights. They pre-programmed information into LEDs and robots, which took 2 years. Ultimately, Cuaron had to go to Warner Brothers and ask for an additional year to complete the film. (It took 4 and 1/2 years and cost $80 million, according to sources and was originally to have been released in November of 2012.).
Cuaron told The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, “Space fascinated me because I’m from the generation that saw Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on live TV. I was 7 at the time. Also, ‘Lost in Space’ was one of my favorite shows on TV back then.”
When Cuaron decided to make the film, casting rumors abounded. Everyone from Natalie Portman to Angelina Jolie to Robert Downey, Jr., to Marion Cotillard and Scarlett Johansson were mentioned in connection with the film at various points. Cuaron has raved about Bullock’s performance, which had to be meticulously choreographed, Said Cuaron, “The movements in this film had to be pre-programmed, like, you have 12 seconds to move from here to here.” This left Robert Downey, Jr., out, as he is best at improvising and riffing off the script. It is also why Cuaron was so impressed with Bullock’s performance, saying, “Throughout shooting, Sandra was completely abstracted from all the technology. Chivo (Cuaron’s cameraman) even bit his hand, he was so impressed. So the performances are, for me, more extraordinary than the technology.”
The most difficult (and interesting) part of the film, for me, was the creation of the technology to film this space epic. James Cameron (“Avatar”) told Variety, “I think it’s the best space photography ever done. I think it’s the best space film ever done, and it’s the movie I’ve been hungry to see for an awful long time.” The 3D work on “Gravity” was supervised and designed by Chris Parks, at design houses Framestore and Prime Focus.
To capture the disorienting effect that astronauts experience in outer space, Cuaron and longtime cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezi spoke with astronauts and physicists to capture how objects would react to specific movements by the astronauts in zero gravity. Says Cuaron, “The toughest thing was the phenomena called gravity because throughout the whole film, you’re fighting gravity.” Finding a way to capture weightlessness, the team tried green screens, wire rigs, underwater tanks and even the “Vomit Comet,” as it is known, which takes passengers to high altitudes in a jet so that they can experience weightlessness for a brief period.
The final solution was to rotate lights around a stationary actor, making it appear as if the actor was moving rapidly. A 9 x 14 foot “light box” called “The Cage” was constructed, lined with 6 giant LED panels composed of millions of lights. These surrounded the actors, held up by harnesses that are invisible onscreen. A race track was designed outside The Cage so that a car-manufacturing robot with a camera installed inside could race around it and put its arm inside various openings to recreate the effect of floating and spinning in space. Background was added in post-production. The result is an extremely believable look at what it must be like to be in zero gravity in outer space, able to look back at the Earth below.
What doesn’t hold up as well is the movie’s plot, which is not as exciting, even, as “Apollo 13”, “Silent Running,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” or “Avatar.” Feminists may balk at the fact that the female astronaut, Ryan Stone, is portrayed as ditzy and not always in control, but leaning on her smarter, more experienced male partner (Matt Kowalski) for guidance. One critic went so far as to say that Clooney “ruined” the movie for him, which seems unfair. But it is fair to say that traditional male/female gender stereotypes are present at a time when young women are assuming more leadership roles in all walks of life.
I found it less edge-of-your-seat exciting than other good space films, with a huge plot problem to overcome for Bullock once Clooney is not there to serve as her foil. Watching Sandra Bullock barking like a dog, alone in a space capsule, isn’t that riveting, despite all the problems she is desperately trying to solve in order to survive. If you think back to “Alien” and what Sigourney Weaver overcame to become the sole survivor of the Nostromo, you find yourself longing for an alien or perhaps a rescue attempt from Earth, to liven things up.
But there is no arguing with the fact that Cuaron, previously the director of such films as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Children of Men,” and “Y tu Mama Tambien” has pulled off a great feat in making an authentic-looking space movie, regardless of the fact that we’ve seen more exciting, compelling stories in space dramas. [“Gravity” set a record-setting October opening at 3,575 venues (3,150 of them in 3D) of $55.6 million (Oct. 4-6, 2013), displacing “Paranormal Activity 3” ($52.6 million) according to the IMDB movie site.]
Cuaron told Studio City News, “I enjoyed every single bit of the process. I would never do it again. It was fun. It was exciting. Making the film was not unlike the journey of the character in the film. It was filled with adversities and things falling apart. You just learn to go through them. It’s weird to say, but the adversities became enjoyable.”