Venice Film Review: ‘Gravity’

Sandra Bullock Gravity

Alfonso Cuaron's white-knuckle space odyssey restores a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.

About halfway through Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock, playing a lost astronaut stranded 375 miles above Earth, seeks refuge in an abandoned spacecraft and curls into a floating fetal position, savoring a brief respite from her harrowing journey. Of the many sights to behold in this white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity, it’s this image that speaks most eloquently to Cuaron’s gifts as a filmmaker: He’s the rare virtuoso capable of steering us through vividly imagined worlds and into deep recesses of human feeling. Suspending viewers alongside Bullock for a taut, transporting 91 minutes (with George Clooney in a sly supporting turn), the director’s long-overdue follow-up to “Children of Men” is at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.

Opening Oct. 4 Stateside following its Venice and Toronto premieres, the Warner Bros. release offers in abundance the sort of eye-popping, screen-filling spectacle that demands to be viewed in a theater. Not unlike earlier triumphs of 3D and vfx innovation such as “Avatar” and “Life of Pi,” though conceived along less fantastical, more grimly realistic lines, “Gravity” is at once classical and cutting-edge in its showmanship, placing the most advanced digital filmmaking techniques in service of material that could hardly feel more accessible.

PHOTOS: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock Premiere ‘Gravity’

As scripted by Cuaron and his son Jonas, this tale of one woman’s expedition into the unknown is a nerve-shredding suspenser, a daring study in extreme isolation, and one of the most sophisticated and enveloping visions of space travel yet realized onscreen. It falls among that increasingly rare breed of popular entertainments capable of prompting genuine “How did they do that?” reactions from even the most jaded viewers, even as its central premise is so simple and immediately gripping that one might just as readily ask, “Why didn’t anyone do it sooner?”

The answer to both questions is that Cuaron, in another remarkable collaboration with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (“Children of Men”), has pushed the relevant technologies to their limits in order to tell this story with the sort of impeccable verisimilitude and spellbinding visual clarity it requires. The long, intricate tracking shots the three devised for the earlier film were a mere warm-up act for what they unleash here, as is clear from the stunningly choreographed opening sequence — an unbroken, roughly 13-minute long take that plunges us immediately into the deafening silence of space. Specifically, we are in the atmospheric layer known as the thermosphere, the Earth’s massive form looming large in the widescreen frame as an orbiting shuttle gradually cruises into focus.

Three members of the crew have left the shuttle to help repair the Hubble telescope, though dramatically, the picture is concerned with only two of them: Matt Kowalsky (Clooney), a seasoned astronaut leading his final mission, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer on her first. The mood is relaxed initially, even humorous; radio music plays in the background as the astronauts exchange banter with mission control. Kowalsky, drifting lazily about in his harness, brags that he’s about to break the official record for longest spacewalk. The far less experienced Stone nervously tries to stay focused on her task, not the easiest thing to do for someone still adjusting to the woozy effects of zero gravity.

“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalsky quips early on. Yet all joking ceases when Houston (voiced by Ed Harris, in a nice nod to “Apollo 13”) suddenly reports that a cloud of debris, triggered by the self-destruction of a nearby Russian satellite, is headed their way. The camera, having gracefully bobbed and weaved around the astronauts without a single cut so far, continues to observe with unblinking concentration as the ship is pelted with shrapnel, killing the third astronaut, causing widespread damage and severing all communications with Houston. Amid the chaos, Stone comes untethered and finds herself spinning, alone and helpless, in the vast emptiness of space, an experience the audience will soon share to a deeply unnerving degree.

In one continuous shot, the film has not only introduced its central crisis — will Stone survive? — but also completely immersed us in the beauty and majesty of a dark, pitiless universe. While “Gravity” is hardly the first film to send characters into orbit, few have so powerfully and subjectively evoked the sensation of floating right there with them. As it glides nimbly around the action, the camera induces a deeply pleasurable feeling of weightlessness (the film might just as well have been titled “Dancing With the Stars”) that can suddenly turn from exhilarating to terrifying, leaving us gasping for oxygen alongside the characters.

The filmmakers’ technical command here is so precise that they’re able to shift perspectives at will; more than once the camera zooms in tighter and tighter on Stone until it seems to enter her helmet, sharing her frightening view of the great, black expanse before her. Exactly what she sees and endures over the course of her journey would be unfair to reveal. Suffice to say the script modulates the tension expertly, deftly preying on the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic alike, and maintaining an unflagging sense of peril as it carefully throws Stone one lifeline after another.

The most crucial of these lifelines turns out to be Kowalsky, who initially comes off as the film’s most obtrusive element, a glib smart-ass who’s there to help Stone and the audience find their bearings, and to provide a measure of comic relief. Yet while Clooney’s flippant leading-man charm may seem incongruous in this context at first, his tough-and-tender rapport with Bullock pulses with understated feeling, never more so than when the two astronauts are tethered together, trying to make their way to safety. Clooney gets one particularly audacious scene that perhaps only a star of his stature could have managed, pulling the viewer through various states of shock, disbelief and finally bittersweet understanding; it’s a haunting moment that firmly ties “Gravity,” for all its uncompromising realism, to the soul of classic Hollywood.

There are glimmers of artifice, too, in the script’s conception of Stone, who turns out to have a tragedy in her past, an unhealed wound that feels rather needlessly engineered to provide the viewer with a psychological entry point, as well as a deeper stake in her survival. It’s the one on-the-nose element in a screenplay that, given its rigorous intelligence in all other departments, might have done well to trust the audience to stay invested in Stone’s journey without the benefit of an emotional hook. (Providing a fascinating contrast is J.C. Chandor’s upcoming stranded-at-sea thriller “All Is Lost,” in some ways a purer, more radical storytelling experiment in which words, motivations and explanations have been almost completely expunged.)

Nonetheless, Bullock inhabits the role with grave dignity and hints at Stone’s past scars with sensitivity and tact, and she holds the screen effortlessly once “Gravity” becomes a veritable one-woman show. In a performance that imposes extraordinary physical demands, the actress remains fully present emotionally, projecting a very appealing combo of vulnerability, intelligence and determination that not only wins us over immediately, but sustains attention all the way through the cathartic closing reels.

The outstanding post-production 3D conversion enhances our sense of immersion in this foreign environment at every turn. Images of outer space give new meaning to the term “deep focus,” while the scenes set in enclosed environs provide a pleasing visual balance and contrast, with floating objects supplying a natural depth of field. As visual an experience as the film is, it would be far less effective without the exceptional sound work by production mixer Chris Munro and sound designer Glenn Freemantle, which makes especially potent use of silence in accordance with the laws of outer-space physics. Helping to vary the soundscape is Steven Price’s richly ominous score, playing like an extension of the jolts and tremors that accompany the action onscreen.

All in all, it would be impossible to overestimate the difficulty of what Cuaron and his top-of-the-line crew have pulled off, or to guess at the staggering number of decisions that were made regarding specifics of camera placement and movement; the motion-control robots that were used on the actors to plausibly simulate zero-gravity conditions; the marvelous scope and detail of Andy Nicholson’s production design; and the meticulous integration of visual effects, all-digital backgrounds, traditional lighting schemes and other live-action lensing techniques. But perhaps the boldest risk of all was the decision to combine these elements in a manner that would hold up under the prolonged scrutiny of the camera, in single-shot sequences of such breathtaking duration and coherence. Somewhere, one imagines, the spirits of Stanley Kubrick and Max Ophuls are looking down in admiration.

Venice Film Review: 'Gravity'

Reviewed at Dolby Laboratories, Burbank, Calif., Aug. 14, 2013. (In Venice Film Festival — opener, noncompeting; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 91 MIN.

Production

A Warner Bros. release and presentation of an Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films production. Produced by Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman. Executive producers, Heyman, Nikki Penny, Chris deFaria, Stephen Jones.

Crew

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Screenplay, Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron. Camera (Technicolor, Arri Alexa digital, widescreen, 3D), Emmanuel Lubezki; editors, Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger; music, Steven Price; music supervisor, George Drakoulias; production designer, Andy Nicholson; supervising art director, Mark Scruton; costume designer, Jany Temime; special effects supervisors, Neil Corbould, Manex Efrem; sound, Chris Munro; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Glenn Freemantle; re-recording mixer, Skip Lievsay; visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber; visual effects producer, Charles Howell; visual effects, Framestore, Rising Sun Pictures, Nhance; stunt coordinator, Franklin Henson; stereoscopic supervisor, Chris Parks; associate producer, Gabriel Rodriguez; assistant director, Josh Robertson; casting, Lucinda Syson, David Rubin, Richard Hicks.

With

Sandra Bullock, George Clooney. Voices: Ed Harris, Orto Ignatiussen, Phaldut Sharma, Amy Warren, Basher Savage.

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  1. Dj says:

    Let’s get real here: though I myself read Kaleidoscope, and it was a nice short story, I would be shocked if even 1 person in 20 has read it.

    When I first heard of Gravity, It flashed through my head that it might be based off of Kaleidoscope, but upon hearing the plot and giving it some thought, the concept of losing your spacecraft and being adrift in space in a space suit seems to be a pretty natural take-off point of a story to think of on your own.

    The idea of space as similar to the deep ocean, we even call spacecraft “ships”, and losing your ship and trying to survive is an OBVIOUS idea. Giving Bradbury some kind of ownership or meta-patent for writing a short story in 1969 is just wrong.

    Kaleidoscope came out in 1969, but so did Bowie’s Space oddity, where we have a guy walking out of his capsule and floating out into outer specs. People collectively felt a lot of the same emotions on seeing the awesomeness of space and astronauts.

    Plus the plots aren’t even similar. In. Kaleidoscope, the hapless astronauts are flung from a spaceship explosion and basically talk to each other over radios as they wait to die. In Gravity we have a protagonist actively struggling to survive in space for most of the movie. The backdrop is space it is a survival story.

    The main commonalities are losing the safety of the spaceship and in the beauty of space juxtaposed with the terror of dying and vast loneliness of space that evokes feelings that are universal to us tiny earthbound humans.

  2. Reblogged this on HORROR BOOM and commented:
    As brilliant and thrilling as this reviewer found Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity (and other reviewers are saying the same thing; we’re pretty confident this movie’s got the goods), we’re honestly not sure if our nerves could take seeing the film. The trailer and clips we posted had us teetering on the verge of a fucking panic attack. On the other hand, there’s quotes from Justin Chang’s review here like the following:

    The outstanding post-production 3D conversion enhances our sense of immersion in this foreign environment at every turn. Images of outer space give new meaning to the term “deep focus,” while the scenes set in enclosed environs provide a pleasing visual balance and contrast, with floating objects supplying a natural depth of field. As visual an experience as the film is, it would be far less effective without the exceptional sound work by production mixer Chris Munro and sound designer Glenn Freemantle, which makes especially potent use of silence in accordance with the laws of outer-space physics. Helping to vary the soundscape is Steven Price’s richly ominous score, playing like an extension of the jolts and tremors that accompany the action onscreen.

    OK. Maybe a glass of wine, and we could chill out enough to take in the thrilling experience…

    “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Kowalsky quips early on. Yet all joking ceases when Houston (voiced by Ed Harris, in a nice nod to “Apollo 13″) suddenly reports that a cloud of debris, triggered by the self-destruction of a nearby Russian satellite, is headed their way. The camera, having gracefully bobbed and weaved around the astronauts without a single cut so far, continues to observe with unblinking concentration as the ship is pelted with shrapnel, killing the third astronaut, causing widespread damage and severing all communications with Houston. Amid the chaos, Stone comes untethered and finds herself spinning, alone and helpless, in the vast emptiness of space, an experience the audience will soon share to a deeply unnerving degree.
    Or maybe a bottle…
    Gravity will open October 4, 2013!

  3. I had glimpsed a short-take of GRAVITY in a teaser trailer; the film ill-served and a trailer impossible to convince anyone what the movie might be. Variety’s comment: (Providing a fascinating contrast is J.C. Chandor’s upcoming stranded-at-sea thriller “All Is Lost,” in some ways a purer, more radical storytelling experiment in which words, motivations and explanations have been almost completely expunged.) This and that on-the-nose remark seem the other distractions from an otherwise great achievement for a motion picture.

    Yet I’m not convinced — as the filmmaker wasn’t — that technique alone, no matter how visually innovative, is a movie; thus, that “on-the-nose” business.

    CHILDREN OF MEN is a film everyone should watch, at least once. For me it is a one-off. GRAVITY, I look forward to with anticipation, if also with reservations.

  4. MovieWytch says:

    While attending San Diego Comic Con this year I was able to attend the panel presentation of Gravity. What was amazing and why I plan to go see this film was due to the nature in which they described the filming and the importance to detail. The example they used was the focus on no sound in space. The according to the director added to the suspense and the sense of isolation and added to the realism of movie. I found this so intriguing and reminded me of the famous movie tagline from Alien “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

  5. Living the Geek Life says:

    I’m glad this is turning out so well!! I saw one of the early teaser trailers at a convention in April, and it was completely confusing and off-putting.

  6. Federico Sanna says:

    elaborating a bit on what Justin Chang said, the on-the-nose scriptwriting elements bothered me more than they should have.

    Stone’s backstory felt too much of a plant-and-pay-off narrative trick – too mechanical, that is – and the fact that she throws that line to seal it off, “no more driving. now we go home” – the pay off moment itself – oddly reminded me of a visual analogue in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere: the car running in circles at the beginning of the movie, and finally following a straight line in the last scene. it all feels like screenwriting 101.
    also, Clooney’s “audacious scene” – I don’t want to give anything away -, although effective per se, felt, well, disneyish.
    as I said, though, these elements bothered me more than they should have: the story is simple. damn: Jaws’ story is simple, and yet it’s a masterpiece, and it’s Hollywood at its best. as it is Gravity.
    perhaps, I expected something more radical from Alfonso Cuarón. but what can me more radical, in recent memory, than creating that kind of overwhelmingly immersive experience and pushing, to name the most striking of all, Emanuel Lubezki to yet another incredibly powerful feat?

  7. Tressel says:

    Clearly Variety loves the SFX and VFX in this film, but there’s one line in the article that I’m honour bound to clarify :

    “The outstanding post-production 3D conversion”

    – It wasn’t a post-production 3D conversion. It was both shot and rendered in stereo.

    – It’s also not ‘3D’ but ‘stereoscopic’ (eg 2 lenses to mimic our two eyes). ‘3D’ would be holograms or the virtual VFX world inside the artist’s computers.

    – So called ‘stereoscopic conversion’ (or 3D conversion if you must) is the practice of taking a film shot with a single lens and making the stereo layers afterwards: mainly using a digital stenciling technique called rotosocoping. Apart from a few tricks to make you think that the stencils have a depth in their features, you’re essentially watching laminate cut outs placed into a made up virtual 3D word and ‘re-shot’ via rendering on a computer. [Post conversion specialists will (rightly) point out that it’s not just flat laminates, there is some extra tricks applied to the stencils and the images they contain…]

    – True stereo photography and rendering is not 2D laminates placed into a made up 3D virtual world. Everything has an apparent relative depth to everything else. eg the actor’s nose is at a different focal position than their cheeks or jaw. It is way more convincing.

    – Post-conversion is not as effective as shooting or rendering in stereo (no matter what you might read to the contrary).

    – Avatar was shot and rendered in Stereo. Clash of The Titans was a post-conversion (and one of the worst, though that was due to time constraints, not the skill of the converters).

    – Sometimes Post-Conversion can be effective (Transformers 3, Star Trek etc).

    Cuaron rocks. As does Gravity.

  8. Honest Rob says:

    Peter, Cuaron has said in interviews he never read Kaleidoscope. Why should he acknowledge something that had no influence on him?

    • Peter Wicht says:

      “Never read” that doesn’t mean that he didn’t know it. This is one of Bradburys most famous stories and a director like him, working in fantasy and Sci-Fi, hasn’t heard of it? But he makes a film with the exact same premise? Give me a break.
      But it might be true in way: from what I see and read, Gravity (as good as it seemingly is) is way less subtle and philosophical than Kaleidoscope.

  9. Peter Wicht says:

    How can one write about this film and not mention Ray Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidoscope”, which it is obviously based on? It’s a shame already that Cuaron doesn’t mention it himself as an, well, “inspiration” in the credits.

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