Gravity—the force that attracts a body toward the center of the earth, or toward any other physical body having mass. (Oxford American Dictionary, Pocket ed., 2008)
By now unless you yourself have been circling the Earth at high altitude, you’ve heard the buzz about Alfonso Cuaron’s triumphant space adventure film GRAVITY.
Even if you have only a passing interest in the movies, you’ve heard the techies rave about how the special effects will change the way films will be made from now on. You’ve read the critics’ glowing reports of Sandra Bullock’s incredible performance in the role of Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on the International Space Station forced to tap hidden reserves of strength when disaster threatens to leave her marooned alone in space.
I’m here to tell you it’s all true. What you’ve heard is not hype. Run, do not walk, to your nearest multiplex and see this film. See it on the biggest screen you can find, in 3D if you can possibly tolerate it. No fan of science fiction, no follower of the space program, no dreamer of that day, no matter how distant, when humankind will escape the bonds of this planet and fly free among the stars, can wait to see this film on DVD. You would truly do yourself, and your imagination, a disservice to miss it.
As many films as I have seen, I’m not a student of the technical aspects of filmmaking. Beyond a few basic principles, I don’t really care how the directors and the cinematographers, the editors and the special effects crew make their movie magic. I just want that magic to appear seamless and, most of all, real. In this day of colossal special effects, we most often simply suspend belief in the theater as huge monsters trash cities with abandon, superheroes perform death-defying feats, things blow up with regularity and even the stupidest movies involve phenomenal amounts of destruction and mayhem.
What Cuaron has done is both more difficult and so different as to be in an entirely separate category. He has set his cinematic story in a real environment, one with rigorous demands of lighting, physicality, set “geography”, choreography, even sound. In other words, he has had to recreate the very strict limitations of space for his players. And make it look real to his audience. That he succeeds—brilliantly, spectacularly, in ways that make your jaw drop—is nothing short of a miracle.
For now, Cuaron is not talking about how he did it. Good for him. Let other filmmakers guess how he had Medical Engineer Stone (Bullock) and Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) first floating, then tumbling and spinning out of control in weightless space. Let jealous rivals lose sleep over how objects swam around Bullock in the cabin just as they would in space, and when she cried, how the tears simply balled up at her eyelashes and floated off into the air in front of her. Let cinematographers everywhere wonder how he got that hard-edged, diamonds-against-velvet light so familiar to all of us from NASA photos throughout his film. I only know Cuaron’s audience, of which I was a part, was riveted.
If GRAVITY had had only the game-changing special effects to offer, it might have ended up as one of those cult movies film school students watch over and over as inspiration. Or as a favorite at SF cons. But this is one of those rare films born out of the emotional heart of the story, with a strongly written backbone and the excellent acting skills of both Clooney and Bullock to carry that story along.
The tale goes that Alfonso Cuaron’s son Jonas had written a script called DESIERTO, about someone lost in the desert. The director liked its themes of desolation, loss and the struggle for survival against great odds. But what better place to play out those themes than the great “desert” of space? He and Jonas wrote the script for GRAVITY together, and as all good writers should, piled on the dangers for their hapless first-time-in-space heroine.
Clooney’s Kowalski is everything we’ve been conditioned to believe an astronaut should be—wise-cracking, calm, competent, brave, self-sacrificing. His steady voice is Stone’s anchor in the chaos of the crisis that envelops them in seconds and throws her into panic.
But it is Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone who is the emotional focus of the story and the heroine of the piece. She has lost her tether to Earth long before debris from a fractured satellite rips the space station apart and makes her fight for survival imperative. Her journey back to life within herself is just as fascinating as the literal trek she must make to get back to Earth. Bullock and the Cuarons have taken care to give us that emotional story; the special effects are only there to make the story believable. In a good film, that is the way it is supposed to work.
GRAVITY opened to the biggest box office in history ($55.6 million), a tribute to the advance buzz on the film and the popularity of its stars. But an interesting footnote to that piece of news is that its audience skewed notably older. Entertainment Weekly reports audiences the first weekend were 59 percent above the age of 35, 54 percent male, 46 percent female. That could, again, be due to the drawing power of its stars, but reports also showed better numbers on the second day of the weekend than the first, meaning word of mouth was at play.
New York, are you listening?