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Release Date(s)2013 (February 25, 2014)
Gravity is among the more fascinating films to come out of Hollywood of late and has been, for me, a puzzling movie experience. It began life in the minds of director Alfonso Cuarón and son and co-writer, Jonás, as the image of a lonely astronaut, untethered, tumbling away into space. Based on that image, their goal was to create an edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster experience that also served as a deeper examination of the death and rebirth of the human spirit. Admirably, through a four year effort of sheer creative willpower and paradigm-shifting visual effects innovation, they’ve done exactly that.
The film’s story is a logline: George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are spacewalking shuttle astronauts working to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, when things begin to go catastrophically wrong and their mission objectives are rapidly reduced to just one: survival. That’s pretty much it. If you’ve seen the trailers for Gravity, which have been everywhere for months now, you’ll know that this film is A) the most extraordinary depiction of life in micro-g ever put on film (including Apollo 13) and B) a lot of stuff in orbit gets completely obliterated. The technical term for it is Kessler Syndrome. Believe it or not, it’s a very real danger that NASA worries about more and more these days.
Now, I’m not especially fond of movie reviews in which the reviewer’s experience is placed front and center, but I really have no other way into this film. So. The thing to know about me is, I’m something a spaceflight enthusiast. More accurately, when I’m not working on all things Blu-ray and DVD related, the wonders of the universe occupy the whole of my imagination. Gravity ought to be right in my wheelhouse. But the first time saw this film (in perfect IMAX at the newly renovated Chinese Theater in Hollywood) I didn’t much care for it. To be sure, the 3D presentation was brilliant and film’s imagery was extraordinary. I was put off by the thin story, though, and by the lack of metaphoric subtlety. While the film seems accurate in terms of the way things look in space, and the moment to moment experience of it, it’s actually wildly inaccurate in almost every other way. But whatever – it’s a movie. My biggest issue with Gravity, as it turns out, was this: As someone who’s enthusiastic about manned spaceflight, the act of watching every single achievement of the last three decades in space get demolished in ninety minutes was brutal. I can’t be the only person to feel that way. I have to imagine that real astronauts and cosmonauts watching this film get a little squirmy.
Then I saw the film again… and again. Having now revisited it a fourth time on Blu-ray, I can finally say this: While I don’t love Gravity, I’ve come to like it a great deal.
First of all, this is an absolutely reference-level Blu-ray in term of picture and sound quality. (You can read Jeff’s review of the Blu-ray 3D version separately here.) It boasts crisp detail, a massive yet subtle color palette, and deep, detailed blacks. The image never looks anything other than completely natural. It’s just gorgeous. Sonically, this is one of the most dynamic and innovative film mixes I’ve heard in years, with both music and subtle sound effects cues working to envelop you in the environment and the tension. It’s an exercise in audio dynamics that knows the value of near-silences – that knows when you draw you in and when to twist you into knots with thunder and bombast.
Then there’s the extras. The disc includes some three hours worth of documentary material – and it’s actually great material. It starts with a nine-part behind-the-scenes documentary, called Gravity: Mission Control, that takes you through the process of making this film from conception to sound design. The documentary runs about 108 minutes and includes: It Began with a Story, Initial Challenges: Long Shots and Zero G, Previsualizing Gravity, The Hues of Space, Physical Weightlessness, Space Tech, Sandra and George: A Pair in Space, Final Animation, and Complete Silence. Therein you will learn that nearly 99% of everything you see in this film – from stars and planetscapes, to spacecraft, floating pens, teardrops, fabric spacesuits, even Post-It Notes – is all digital animation. Really only the actors faces and the scenes shot inside the Soyuz and Shenzhou capsules is actually real. This environment is entirely CG… and yet it looks and feels entirely photorealistic. That’s an astonishing achievement. You’ll learn that the illusion of microgravity was achieved by filming the actors on a tilting/rotating platform, inside an LED light box (inspired by Peter Gabriel of all people – that allowed the actors to see and be lit by the actual film environment) with cameras mounted on robotic arms, all programmed in advance to move together in such a way as to make the recorded image look real. That’s an achievement of sheer, brute-force, visual effects geekery worthy of NASA Mission Control itself. The Blu-ray also offers 37 minutes of Shot Breakdowns allowing you a look more closely at the effort to create particular scenes or aspects of the film, including Behind the Visor, Fire in the International Space Station, Dr. Stone’s Rebirth, The Sound of Action in Space, and Splashdown. Then there’s Jonás Cuarón’s 10-minute short film Aningaaq, which is essentially the other side of the conversation Sandra Bullock’s character has over the radio from the Soyuz capsule in the film. Finally, there’s a great little 22-minute documentary piece called Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space on that real Kessler Syndrome thing I mentioned earlier. It’s narrated by actor Ed Harris, who also serves as the radio voice of Mission Control in the film – a very nice and subtle nod to Apollo 13. All of these extras are excellent and well worth your time. In fact, I’d wager that the documentary material here is just as likely to blow you away as the film itself is.
Gravity, more than any other film I’ve seen in some time, is a symphony. Performance (Bullock is at her finest here), visual effects, lighting, sound, music – it all works in perfect sync from moment to moment to create this feeling of simplicity, of effortlessness. It’s a pretty unique piece of filmmaking… even if the Cuaróns do send human spaceflight back to the Stone Age in the process. What the hell. It’s only a movie. (And, I must add, a Blu-ray experience that I highly recommended.)
- Bill Hunt