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Please note that I decided not to shy away from spoilers for this review. Gravity is not really the type of film that lives or dies on story elements, but readers that would prefer to go into the film completely blind might want to wait before they read any further.

Feature


Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in command. But, on a seemingly routine mission, disaster strikes. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone—tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the darkness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space. (From Warner Bros’ official synopsis)

 Gravity (2D)
If we don’t take things like legacy and breadth of output into consideration, Alfonso Cuarón might be the most talented filmmaker working today. Between Children of Men and Gravity, he has set a new bar for effortless extended takes and hidden special effects. I’d argue the only filmmakers that can equal his abilities with disguising digital augmentations are men with three or four times the experience, like Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott. And yet, Cuarón has only made seven films and only three of those were particularly CG-heavy. His work, though modest in volume, is eclectic in terms of genre, tone, and intended audience age group, including children’s literary adaptations ( A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), honest, humanist dramas ( Sólo Con Tu Pareja, Y Tu Mamá También), and, of course, a dystopian sci-fi thriller ( Children of Men). Even with all he has accomplished, Gravity[/I feels like a watershed moment in his career. The positive audience reaction (over $700 million in worldwide revenue) is encouraging, especially following [I]Children of Men’s disappointing box office and lack of awards recognition.

Children of Men is still the more complete package. It features a meatier story, more complex characters, and the more powerful and pertinent subtext (it is among the quintessential post-9/11 movies). Gravity is simplified on a story level for the sake of its visceral visual expression. It features only a handful of characters, only two of which have any face time, and it paints all but one of them as abstract archetypes. There’s very little political meaning beneath the relentlessly straightforward, barebones plot (the radio scene certainly has something to say about human interaction being the most important thing in the world, despite language barriers) and the emotional subtext is, perhaps, overstated (Cuarón was never one to shy away from melodrama). But the simplicity is important to the disaster/survival movie formula Cuarón and his co-writer/son Jonás are using, because, in the end, that’s what Gravity is – a really classy disaster movie.

 Gravity (2D)
Disaster movies are an interesting genre. George Seaton’s Airport more or less set the template in 1970, though it had its roots in earlier B-sci-fi/horror movies where monsters/aliens destroyed landmarks and/or forced protagonists into survivalist scenarios ( King Kong, Godzilla, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Night of the Living Dead, for example). Despite being categorized as low-brow entertainment by most critics and audiences, the disaster movies of the ‘70s attracted top-shelf acting talent, broke box office records, and, in some cases ( Airport, The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno), were even nominated for Academy Awards – and not only for technical achievements. As digital effects improved, they began to redefine the genre in the late ‘90s, including natural disaster flicks ( Twister, Volcano, and my personal favourite, Dante’s Peak), intergalactic threats ( Armageddon and Deep Impact), and monster movies (including another personal favourite, Deep Blue Sea). Roland Emmerich’s entire career was defined by alien invasions ( Independence Day), giant monster attacks ( Godzilla 1998), and destructive weather ( The Day After Tomorrow). Now, every special effects-driven franchise tends to involve a plucky ensemble, surviving a series of landmark-obliterating events.

Needless to say, the disaster genre has been exhausted and only really works when it is treated somewhat satirically, like Emmerich’s 2012, or disguised by conflicting tropes, like the superhero team-up, The Avengers. What Cuarón has done is distilled and streamlined the genre, then applied it to a particularly intimate, real world situation. The only major deviation Gravity makes from the disaster template is the cast size. Generally speaking, disaster movies, like slashers, require a big body count. By narrowing his character scope, Cuarón is able to compact the audience’s sympathies, but he also makes his job harder, because he can’t make multiple examples of the threat the disaster poses by offing lesser cast members (in most cases, the volcano/tidal wave/global blizzard/towering inferno/etc. will violently mangle the expendable characters and let the audience know it means business). Still, the debris does murder the (literally) faceless characters and George Clooney sacrifices himself to the vacuum of space, fulfilling the classic role of a martyr that ensures the survival of the other characters (or character, in this case). Even the spiritual/religious themes the Cuaróns shuffle into the mix have precedence in disaster pictures, where survivors often find strength in faith (examples include the praying circles in Independence Day and Deep Blue Sea).

 Gravity (2D)
Cuarón’s execution is exquisitely nerve-wracking, cutting down to the marrow of the terrifying prospect of space travel. He exploits a fear entrenched in our very DNA as terrestrial creatures. Like all good disaster/survival movies, Gravity sets up a domino effect of unfortunate events. It continuously tosses its main character out of the frying pan and into the fire…then into another, hotter fire, and another, and so on. Always the artist, Cuarón occasionally pauses to inject more ‘meaningful’ imagery into the otherwise drum-tight production – the image of Bullock floating semi-nude in the fetal position and the ‘steps of evolution’ that close the film out (complete with a frog swimming past Bullock’s head), for example. But the film’s overwhelming drive is to tie the audience in knots for 90 minutes until the cathartic victory with only a few emotionally moving breathers. I’ve heard some folks condemn the film for its happy ending, but this seems like a complete misunderstanding of the type of film Cuarón was making. A downer outcome also likely would’ve alienated the potential wide audience needed for the $100 million effects experiment to turn a profit. There’s something to be said for subverting expectations, but a movie where a beloved screen icon dies following 90 minutes of trials and tribulations would be subversive for the sake of subversion – it would be an erroneous gimmick.

Precision execution aside, without the right actress in the lead role, Gravity merely would’ve been another respectable thriller. Sandra Bullock fills the role believably, including just enough drama to make us vehemently root for her and just enough levity to remind us that we’re supposed to be having fun with the experience. In the hands of a weaker performer, her expositional back-story might’ve helped center the character, but Bullock sells Dr. Ryan Stone’s humanity so perfectly with so few words that any mention of her pre-event life becomes almost distractingly superfluous. Cuarón’s underestimation of his audience’s sympathies and his lead actress’ skill is the film’s most blatant shortcoming, though it still serves its purpose during Bullock’s bonding scene with co-star, George Clooney. Clooney’s part is more thankless, because he is meant to embody an almost impossible perfect specimen, one who stays calm under pressure and knows exactly what to do in a crisis situation. Clooney’s character, Matt Kowalski, is also only really seen through Ryan’s eyes. He’s sort of a cipher for every heroic astronaut she’s ever looked up to and continues to be, even after his heroic off-screen death when he appears as a projection of her problem-solving skills.

 Gravity (2D)

Video


If ever there was one movie that required a big screen viewing in 2014, it was Gravity. I personally found the 3D enhancements a bit extraneous (I also have a lot of trouble focusing my eyes on even well-executed 3D footage), but the immersive qualities of a theatrical viewing are vital. It certainly loses something on home video, just not enough to suggest avoiding the experience. Warner Bros. sent me the 3D/2D Combo Pack release, but this review pertains only to the 2D, 2.40:1, 1080p transfer. Before I even got my disc, I was told that there was already some controversy surrounding the relatively small overall bitrate/movie file size. I assume that the film’s overriding blackness (it does take place in space, afterall) were to blame. In motion this transfer is a little noisier than I’d expect from a film shot using mostly Arri Alexa HD cameras. Had it been shot in 35mm (which I understand some parts were), this would look pretty natural, but, knowing it probably should appear cleaner (I recall it appearing cleaner in theaters) I am disappointed to admit that the alarmists may have been right – Warner Bros. may have over-compressed this video a bit. The expected excuse, that they crammed both the 3D and 2D versions onto a single disc, is not valid, because this is a three-disc set (the third disc being a DVD). That said, I didn’t find the compression particularly distracting, nor do I think it detracts from the transfer’s finer details. The wide-angle images of earth are plenty busy, the close-up textures are tight, and the contrasting edges are crisp without haloes or jaggies. The colour palette is limited by the cold blackness of space, but stuff like the setting/rising sun and the flames that coincide with Bullock’s more explosive adventures gives the image plenty of warmth to counteract the duller blues and greens. At their worst, the fine compression artefacts do dull the purity of the blacks a hair and create some banding issues in the highlight blends (the rising sun being a chief example).

 Gravity (2D)

Audio


Cuarón and Gravity’s sound designers take pains to reproduce the vacuum of space while still engaging the 5.1 mix, which makes this DTS-HD soundtrack a little difficult to review, at least in comparison to other, more bombastic, modern action/sci-fi mixes. The idea here is to recreate noise only as it would sound from inside of a spacesuit with some minor stylistic royalties taken for the sake of theatricality. At first, you might think that the film is completely silent outside of the dialogue and Clooney’s Hank Williams music for long spans of time, but there’s actually a steady LFE hum during many of these quieter scenes. The bass rumble increases and decreases to stimulate the sound of touch vibrations within the space suits. These sounds are directionally spread depending on their onscreen location. The more aurally aggressive scenes are the one where a fire breaks out in the Russian station, enveloping the speakers with growling flames, and the finale, where the roar of reentry trembles the LFE. The dialogue is also muffled and slightly crackly at the beginning of the film to recreate the sound of a NASA radio frequency. The sound designers take liberties by moving the voices around the stereo and surround channels, creating the illusion that the audience is an outside observer, listening from the center of the screen. Anytime Cuarón puts us directly in Bullock’s helmet or within a space station the atmosphere normalizes the tone of her voice, though it continues to move throughout the speakers based on her placement. Steven Price’s atmospheric and dissonant score could’ve very easily overwhelmed the delicate sound design, but usually gives it additional aural texture, especially when mixed to rotate throughout the channels.

 Gravity (2D)

Extras


  • Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space (22:30, HD) – A short documentary that covers the real life problem of space debris and the efforts being made to fix it, narrated by Ed Harris.
  • Aningaaq (10:10 with introduction, HD) – A short film that shows us the other side of Ryan’s chance conversation with an Inuit fisherman, directed by Jonás Cuarón.
  • Gravity Mission Control (1:46:40, HD) – A feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary that is broken down into nine sections:
    • It Began with a Story – Where the Cuaróns explain their screenwriting process, with special emphasis on the philosophical implications of the story (most of the metaphors flew right over my head).
    • Initial Challenges: Long Shots and Zero G – Concerning the process of re-creating the weightlessness of space, including research, pre-viz, the science of weightlessness, the early digital animation tests, and Cuarón’s use of long takes.
    • Previsualizing Gravity – On bringing together the special effects team for the pre-viz process, abandoning wirework and motion capture, arriving at the solution to animate almost the entire film, developing brand new motion control cameras and actor-moving technology – a system named the ‘light box.’
    • The Hues of Space – Concerning Emmanuel Lubezki’s complex virtual cinematography and lighting processes, which included projecting the film’s backgrounds around the actors to give them something to react to. Here, we also get a tour of the light box set.
    • Physical Weightlessness – On the floating wire rigs that were used for scenes that required more physicality from Bullock (especially the ones where she is in her underwear).
    • Space Tech – Where the crew describes the design and production of virtual (and some physical) sets, props, and costumes.
    • Sandra and George: A Pair in Space – Concerning Bullock and Clooney’s acting and interaction.
    • Final Animation – Covering the post-production effects animation, compositing, and editing process.
    • Complete Silence – On the unusual sound design and Steven Price’s music.
  • Five shot breakdowns  (36:50, HD) – Really less ‘shot breakdowns’ than explanations of various effects problems, including visors, zero G fire, Bullock’s ‘rebirth’ strip-down, lining up the music to the silent action, and the final splashdown scene.
  • A listing of the film festivals that Gravity appeared at.


Note that the ‘Silent Space’ version promised by the promotional materials does not appear here.

 Gravity (2D)

Overall


The fact that Gravity was a surprise worldwide hit without falling in line with the studio blockbuster template is a reason to celebrate. It’s not a perfect film, or even the best film of the year, but it’s smart and incredibly well made, which puts it ahead of so many films in its profit bracket. It is these small victories that will eventually change the popular film landscape. I should also admit that I wasn’t a fan of Sandra Bullock’s acting abilities until this year. Between this and The Heat she has completely won me over. Obviously, this particular film loses some of its impact on home video – a problem Warner Bros. has somewhat compounded by not giving it the perfect 1080p transfer it deserves – but the DTS-HD soundtrack is still incredibly effective and the extras are extensive.

 Gravity (2D)
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.


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