Gravity, the new sci-fi space thriller, is a stunning piece of filmmaking that gives new meaning to the phrase "cutting edge." The technology used to create the sensation of astronauts floating weightlessly in space is so new that director Alfonso Cuarón had to wait over a year for the marionette-like equipment to be designed and manufactured that would allow him to simulate weightlessness without the aid of the "Vomit Comet" airplane used in such movies as Ron Howard's Apollo 13 (1995). The result is uncanny. Star Sandra Bullock pushes off from walls and slithers through air as though she were swimming under water. James Cameron, known for his own cutting-edge animation in such films as Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) said of Gravity, "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."
According to interviews, Cuarón spent a year creating the initial computer animation for the film, a year filming the live actors, and another year coordinating the live footage with the computer animation, in addition to the year and a half wait for the puppetry equipment. Gravity was worth the wait. The lighting, the graphics, the cinematography, and the physical movement of the actors work seamlessly together to create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Visual effects supervisor Tim Webber realized that the filmmakers could not use traditional green-screen technology if they wanted to create the sensation of astronauts tumbling through space and banging into space stations or dodging debris. Instead, they shot the actors' faces and did everything else digitally.
This introduced a whole new challenge for the lighting team, who would have to match the lighting of the faces with the lighting of the all-digital setting. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained the difficulty they faced when he discussed the fact that the believability of the lighting “can break if the light is not moving at the speed that it has to move, if the position of the light is not right, if the contrast or density on the faces is wrong, et cetera." To prevent that from happening, the film crew built a box in which they could move the light around the actors instead of moving the actors around the set. The actors had to be precise in the position of their bodies and in moving to their marks in order to match the animation. In essence, Cuarón became as much a choreographer as a director of his actors. The result is a stunning, seamless collaboration of live action and computer generated animation.
Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up.
Whatever they did, it works. There is never a break in believability, never a sense of "this is live and this is animated." Cuarón and his team have created a work that will be held up for decades as a turning point in cinematic science. You must see it the way it was intended, in 3D, in order to experience the full effect. I don't typically like 3D movies, but this is one film that deserves and requires the technology, especially when space debris is hurtling straight at you or papers are floating around in the cockpit, or when a tear floats away from a cheek.
But enough about the technology; what about the story? Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer making repairs to the Hubble Telescope while seasoned astronaut Max Kowalski (George Clooney) provides technical support. Max, acting more like Buzz Lightyear than Buzz Aldrin, plays with his power thrusters, listens to country music, and tells shaggy dog stories while Ryan struggles with air sickness and wrestles an errant motherboard out of its casing in the telescope. Warned that debris from an exploded Russian anti-satellite test is hurtling toward them, Max and Ryan can't get into the space station fast enough. Then Ryan panics and can't disconnect her tether. Debris knocks her loose and she tumbles end-over-end away from the shuttle. Max uses his jet pack to go after her, risking his own chance at survival to rescue the young maiden.
Here I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation, contrasted with Clooney's calm, soothing reassurance. Sure, I would probably be panicking in such a situation. (Well, maybe not. I'm known for my problem-solving skills in an emergency.) But I'm not an astronaut. I have met a few astronauts, however (OK, two), and they both talked about the psychological testing that precedes an astronaut’s physical training. Anyone who does not demonstrate the ability to remain calm and focused in an emergency would not be selected for the program, no matter how skilled a medical engineer she or he might be.
Still, for carrying the story forward and creating fearful empathy with the audience, Bullock's panicky hyperventilating certainly does the trick. It also creates a tremendous contrast as we watch her character grow in courage, innovation, and determination throughout the film. And isn't that what disaster films are all about? They allow us to walk around in the hero's moon boots and test our own mettle. What would you or I do if we found ourselves in the darkness and utter isolation of outer space? Or swirling around in an ocean or marooned on a mountainside or trapped in a building that had been hit by a jet airplane? Would we accept the inevitable, turn off the oxygen, and make the end quick and sweet, or would we sally forth with indefatigable determination until our last ounce of courage had been expended?
The rest of the film is a tense and exciting race against time and improbability as the survivors of the crash struggle to find a way back to safety. One interesting metaphor that appears throughout the film is the connection between hope and survival. If the astronauts somehow manage to get back to the space station and into a landing pod, they will still need help from someone on the earth in order to return safely. But they hear nothing from Houston; communication with ground control was severed when the space debris damaged the satellites. What's the point, then, of trying? The astronauts have no reason to believe (or have faith) that Houston can hear them, but they proceed with the hope that their transmitters will work, even if their receivers do not.
I have to interject how annoyed I was to hear Bullock's panicked "What do I do? What do I do? What do I do?" and her almost orgasmic hyperventilation.
Hope is the power that allows us to overcome fear. It leads to action. Without hope, without faith, the astronauts would simply give up. "Houston in the blind" they begin every transmission as they report their location, their movements, and their plans. “Houston in the blind" is a technical phrase that nevertheless suggests something more — a reference to blind faith.
It has been said that there are no atheists in a foxhole, and that may be true; three of my most Objectivist atheist friends admitted to praying as their prop plane took a nosedive toward an African jungle many years ago. (Their survival when the plane leveled out at the last minute did not lead to any lasting conversions; when they told the story, they all laughed at themselves for their weakness.) While no one actually prays in this film, they do discuss the existence of God and the power of prayer. Ryan laments that no one ever taught her how to pray. But she does learn the power of hope, and the faith required to call out to "Houston in the blind" when Houston is the only means of arriving safely home. She also learns that the simplest and grandest of prayers consists of just two words: "Thank You."
Of course, those readers of this review who are not currently cowering in foxholes may prefer a more Randian interpretation of the hero, and that is just as legitimate a message to draw from the film. Gravity celebrates the human mind's ability to draw on its inventory of knowledge and make connections to solve problems. As the seasoned astronaut, Max is able to use his experience, training, and reason to figure out what to do, even though he has not been in this exact situation before. As a rookie, Ryan has no experience and very little training. Nevertheless, she, too, has the ability to tap into her experience when she lets her intuition guide her (in this context, see my review of Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide, http://libertyunbound.com/node/815). Despite her weak and cowering beginning, she develops into a strong, self-reliant hero.
The greatest hero of this film, however, is its maker. Alfonso Cuarón nurtured the project through two studios, multiple stars, myriad technical obstacles, and several rejections, but he never gave up. Gravity grossed over $55 million in its first weekend alone, and is likely to become the biggest film of the year.