“Gravity” is a movie of impressive cinematography and thrilling tension. It’s a movie that should be seen on the big screen because that’s where its large scale (the setting is the thermosphere) and photography is best appreciated.
And like most, it’s a movie that should not be seen in 3D if possible. The 3D was pushed really hard. With only a couple theatres in Calgary doing 2D screenings, it might be assumed the 3D is a must. It’s good quality 3D, but like all others, makes for a darker image and adds nothing to the experience except a higher ticket price.
I always lower the glasses once or twice during a 3D movie to get a better idea of the image I should really be viewing. It looks like “Gravity” has a nice colour pallet, but is sadly spoiled by the dark glasses and lens required to project 3D.
That’s my harangue on 3D for this week.
A crew of astronauts are installing upgrades on the Hubble Space Telescope when Russia decides to shoot down a satellite. This causes a chain reaction of debris that more or less destroys every structure put into space. The debris hits the Telescope and the attached shuttle and destroys both. This sends Ryan (Sandra Bullock) hurdling far along the thermosphere. In the ad campaign, this event is portrayed as the entirety of the movie. But actually it’s the first problem in a smorgasbord of Murphy’s Law problems to get back to Earth.
The movie works on two levels. First, the plot has a lot of compelling tension. A disaster in space is a nightmare scenario. We’ve seen the same type of set-up in survival movies where characters are shipwrecked on a deserted island. But “Gravity” uses the space of outer space as a uniquely hostile environment.
It manages to exploit both the tensions of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Agoraphobia, because space is the big nothing. You’ll die in an infinite place and it’ll be a long time before anyone finds your body. But also claustrophobic because a bulky spacesuit with no air can be a prison. And so can a space structure that is about to be destroyed.
The other level is the high technical production values. Director Alfonso Cuaron, who admirably employed a constantly fluid, graceful camera in “Children of Men” employs more impressive camera work here. The opening shot is 18 minutes in duration and must have been every bit as infuriating to construct as the tracking shot Orson Welles used in the opening of “Touch of Evil.”
Cuaron likes long takes and in order to get the shots right he employed industrial robots - the kind used to construct cars - with cameras attached to meticulously map out each shot. The usual devices – dollies, cranes, and tracks weren’t ideal because the filming of the movie was like a theme park ride. The spacewalk scenes were CGI, but for the interior scenes lacking gravity, Bullock was attached to an apparatus that would move her body around, creating the illusion of no gravity. And the robots would follow her around in a pre-mapped pattern, capturing the action.
Something to behold is the CGI Earth. Except for the first seconds of the movie, it’s frequently in the background, but is always breathtaking. Because CGI has a short shelf life it might not hold up as well as the model Earth in “2001,” but it’s definitely something to see.
Another good quality is the soundtrack, and the absence of it. There’s no sound in space so a frequent and compelling score is a must. Its constant intensity aids the action nicely.
The soundtrack isn’t noticed much in movies but you’d certainly notice if it wasn’t there. And the silence of space adds to the tension of the strange and hostile environment.
The only thing that’s lacking about “Gravity” is Ryan’s emotional journey. The challenge of getting back to Earth is equated with overcoming a personal tragedy. But I was never as involved in her problem as I was in the rest of the movie. Maybe it’s because the movie had to make choices. It’s only 91 minutes long and the choice was made in favour of action.
***1/2 (out of 4)
David Jackson can be reached at email@example.com