It took a long time to get Gravity off the ground. For a start there were the technical challenges that many thought were insurmountable. There were also the studios, who were perhaps understandably wary of spending $100 million on a movie where for much of the time it’s just a woman floating about in space. Universal developed the film but then got cold feet and backed out due to the risks. Thankfully Warner Bros. stepped in and they’ve been paid back in spades, with the movie surprising most observers by grossing over $700 million at the box office and getting 10 Oscar nominations.
However some have wondered whether a movie that seems so designed to be watched in 3D on the big screen would translate into the home. The answer is that it works very well, and while the movie certainly looks good in Blu-ray 3D, it’s just as well worth viewing in 2D, where it’s actually easier to appreciate the immense artistry and filmmaking skill on show rather than simply being overwhelmed by the visceral impact of the 3D.
The story is simple (if a little over the top at times). Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a NASA astronaut on a spacewalk, where she’s helping repair the Hubble Telescope. The shuttle crew gets word that a missile strike on a disused satellite has caused a cloud of debris, but this only becomes a problem when it starts a cascade reaction, destroying other satellites and sending deadly fragments towards the Hubble’s orbit. The hurtling wreckage blasts the telescope and the attached Shuttle to shreds, leaving Ryan and mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) stranded alone in space.
Matt decides their only hope for survival is to try and head for the International Space Station, in the hope that they can use one of the Soyuz capsules to get home. However when Ryan and Matt lose contact, she is left alone to try and make it back to Earth in an ever worsening situation.
From its opening moments the movie hooks you in. The first shot is an astonishing 13-minutes long, followed immediately by a six-minute shot – so that’s over a fifth of the film in just two shots. It could easily have seemed like a gimmick, but as he showed with his six-minute take in Children Of Men, Alfonso Cuaron knows how to use these exceptionally long shots as a powerful storytelling device. It immediately sells the film’s realism and also allows the viewer to fully experience the world the movie is set in, with the extended shots showing the majesty, scale and danger of space, and then taking you into the subjective view of the astronaut, who’s trapped in a tiny, claustrophobic bubble in an place that’s not even vaguely designed for human survival.
Thankfully these incredibly extended takes are all in service of a simple but very moving story. Soon the film isn’t just an incredibly visceral and exciting journey through space but it’s also an allegorical tale about rebirth and finding the will not to just survive but to live. It’s a movie filled with some beautiful imagery, truly incredible special effects and a great performance from Sandra Bullock. It’s difficult to imagine anyone except Alfonso Cuaron having managed to pull it all together, but he has and Gravity more than deserves the Oscar nominations it got.
On Blu-ray it really allows you to experience what an incredible filmmaking achievement it is. It’s one of those films that isn’t just entertaining and exciting, but manages to inspire a sense of awe not just because it’s set in space but also because you can’t help but realise what a feat it was to create it.
The Blu-ray special features give you a great look into just how Gravity was achieved. While watching the film it’s clear it must have taken some impressive technical and creative feats to get it on the screen, the extras will probably make you feel like you severely underestimated just how difficult it was. Even while viewing the behind-the-scenes footage it’s almost impossible to believe they actually overcame the obstacles they face and that the solutions they found actually worked.
Interestingly Alfonso Cuaron himself says that when he started developing the film he thought it was going to be pretty simple to make, but it ended up being a four year process just to overcome the technical challenges, all the time with some people saying much of what they wanted to do simply wasn’t possible at the moment.
Whether it’s the incredible rigs Sandra Bullock got strapped into in order to create believable micro-gravity or the lightbox (essentially a 360-degree TV) they put her in to give the actress a visual reference and so that the lighting would be correct, it’s truly incredible. Then there’s the industrial robots that controlled the camera and lights, the cramped sets that literally pulled apart and slotted back together to allow the camera to move in and around them, or the fact that Sandra’s performance had to be so carefully controlled both from a technical and safety perspective that she literally had puppeteers. And that’s not to mention what happened in the computers, as massive chunks of the movie are completely CG-animated except for the faces, but it’s so well done it’s astonishing how little of the movie is physical – hell, even the spacesuit visors and character’s breaths are virtual.
The disc gives you a brilliant look at all this, with a series of featurettes that you can view together as a feature-length look at the making of the movie. Then there are yet more featurettes that focus on different set-piece sequences, looking at various aspects from the CG-effects to the music (and until you watch the extras it’s easy to overlook how absolutely central to the film the score is). Added to that is a documentary looking at how the idea of a space debris chain reaction knocking out satellites isn’t all that far-fetched, as well as Jonas Cuaron’s short film Aningaaq, which focuses on the Earth side of a radio conversation Ryan Stone has while she’s in space.
It all ensures that it’s a fantastic disc. The 3D version of the film look greats and pulls you right into the film’s visceral experience. The 2D version gives you a better appreciation of the surprisingly moving story and the incredible artistry involved. And the three-hours plus of special features are absolutely fascinating. In fact anyone interested in filmmaking really ought to watch the Gravity extras, as it’s a truly eye-opening look at what can be achieved when art, science, engineering, creativity and a lot of astonishingly clever people come together to make something and everyone is working together in sync for the same ends, and to tell a story in the best possible way.
Overall Verdict: A truly astonishing achievement in terms of its technical virtuosity, but also in how it uses that breathtaking artistry to both create a truly thrilling experience and to bring greater depth to its exciting and surprisingly moving story.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac