When a cataclysmic chain reaction of low-orbit debris traveling at 17,000 miles per hour destroys a U.S. space shuttle, medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) -- the only two survivors -- have to find a way to reach the International Space Station and return home. Nothing comes easily, though. Communications with their Houston-based mission controller (Ed Harris) have been cut off. Oxygen levels are depleting fast. Propulsion is a rare commodity. The equipment at their disposal is damaged. And the orbiting debris cloud is set to return every ninety minutes. Every second, every maneuver and every decision is crucial. Gravity is a nuts-n-bolts story of survival, little more; although small details about past tragedies and present struggles in Stone's life render every inch of her journey more meaningful than the last.
Compartmentalizing Gravity's production is difficult, at least in traditional filmmaking terms. Cuarón, worked to create shots as daring, innovative and fearless as they are heart-stoppingly beautiful and convincing. The lines between each artist's responsibilities blurred daily, to the point that it's something of a miracle Gravity was even completed, much less that it returned from the outer wastelands of development hell the refined, precision-crafted masterwork it is. Any number of things could have gone terribly, terribly wrong. The studio could have pulled the plug at any moment. Cuarón could have run into a variety of insurmountable obstacles. Budget constraints could have come calling. As it was, every step of the way was already fraught with delays and challenges. But the eyes of the filmmakers were always trained on the story and characters, without fail. You'll find very few effects for effects' sake here. Most every visual, no matter how technically impressive, serves the script and performances. Even the magnificent 17-minute "take" that opens the film isn't vanity or grandstanding on the part of Cuarón and Lubezki. The shot is explicitly designed to fully immerse viewers in the reality of Gravity from the outset, and does just that to amazing results.
Bullock is as refreshingly sober and withdrawn as the visual effects. Her performance is built on a series of true-to-life revelations and vulnerabilities that, as pressure mounts, chip away at her character's deep-seated melancholy and set her free. It's obvious long before Gravity reaches its triumphant end that Stone's story is one of rebirth. (One particularly evocative shot finds the doctor curled into a loose fetal position, floating serenely in a sunlit, womb-like airlock, with umbilical cables hanging behind her.) But it's also a story of actively choosing to live life; of overcoming despair and making a very intentional decision to press on. For some, it will be a profoundly religious film, with themes of salvation, redemption and restoration surging beneath the surface. For others, it will be a profoundly human drama, with a fight for survival amidst the chaos and randomness of disaster and the forces of nature. The brilliance of Cuarón and co-writer Jonás Cuarón's barebones storytelling is that it allows for so many fundamentally different interpretations, yet culminates in the same thought: life is worth living, however short-lived it may be. (And no, that isn't a spoiler, one way or the other.)
Beyond the script, visuals and performances lie too many achievements to list, from the film's rich sound editing and mixing to composer Steven Price's stirring score, Mark Scruton's art design, Andy Nicholson's production design, and so on and so on. There is no element out of place in Gravity. No component lacking, no piece missing. It's as pure and perfect as filmmaking gets, and the experience is tremendously affecting. What little criticism has been leveled against the movie amounts to nitpicking. Yes, the fact that Dr. Stone just happens to be on her first space flight and Kowalski just happens to be on his last is a bit contrived, as is Stone's relative inexperience. And yes, there are a few scientific inaccuracies. (Albeit very few, and none that take a serious toll. Much as he enjoyed the film, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson made a point of noting several scientific flaws, one of which misses the point of the title entirely.) Does any of it matter? Not one bit. Gravity is an extraordinary tour de force and the film to beat at the Academy Awards.
Gravity features an eye-popping, near-perfect, top tier 1080p/AVC-encoded video transfer that has already solidified its place as one of the best Blu-ray presentations of 2014. Color and contrast are flawless, with excellent saturation, lifelike skintones, deep black levels and terrific shadow delineation. The hairs on Bullock's neck or the rough stubble on Clooney's chin. The fingerprints, smudges, dust and scratches on the space suit visors. The age and weathering on the metal tools and tethers Stone and Kowalski have to work with. The thousands and thousands of pieces of debris hurtling around the Earth. The ridges of the mountains and the swirling clouds on the face of the planet. Or the fact that, at the beginning of the film, you can spot Kowalski circling the NASA shuttle almost from the moment the ship comes into view far off in the distance. A handful of visual effects aren't quite as convincing as the rest (small objects floating in the cabins of shuttles and escape pods are a bit problematic), but none of it traces back to Warner's encode. Just as outstanding is Warner's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. The film's sound design plays a significant role in the experience and it's incredibly effective in the home theater environment. The eerie silence of space is punctuated by breathing, the smallest movements, vibrations traveling through space suits, static-laden NASA communication and other subtleties, all presented here impeccably. LFE output is aggressive, sometimes downright vindictive. When Stone is in space, low-end rumbles are fittingly restrained and thoroughly realistic. When she gains entry to space stations or escape pods, though, the full fury of the debris field and the chaos outside becomes readily apparent. The rear speakers follow suit, creating a convincing, wholly enveloping soundfield as believable as it is involving.
- Gravity: Mission Control: Gravity's supplemental package opens with a terrific, wonderfully extensive and revealing behind-the-scenes documentary that touches on every aspect of the production, from the original script to the various previsualization stages, the shoot itself, obstacles and difficulties encountered along the way, and the delicate marriage between editing, performances and visual effects. Segments include:
- It Began with a Story (16:21)
- Initial Challenges: Long Shots and Zero G (10:12)
- Previsualizing Gravity (11:38)
- The Hues of Space (10:41)
- Physical Weightlessness (7:48)
- Space Tech (13:02)
- Sandra and George: A Pair in Space (9:37)
- Final Animation (15:01)
- Complete Silence (12:13)
- Shot Breakdowns: Calling this series of scene-specific featurettes "Shot Breakdowns" is a bit of a misnomer. While they do indeed break down key shots in the film, each one is more of an extension or addition to the "Mission Control" production documentary than a simple FX short. And each one is as fascinating as the next. I only wish there were more. Breakdowns include:
- Behind the Visor (6:50)
- Fire in the International Space Station (5:42)
- Dr. Stone's Rebirth (7:54)
- The Sound of Action in Space (7:55)
- Splashdown (8:24)
- Aningaaq: A Short Film by Jonás Cuarón: Gravity co-writer Jonás Cuarón's intriguing but ultimately rather inconsequential short film focuses on the Inuit fisherman Dr. Stone (Bullock) inadvertently contacts while aboard the Tiangong's escape capsule. The short also includes an optional introduction with the father and son filmmakers.
- Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space: Actor Ed Harris narrates this smartly produced and edited documentary about the very real looming crisis that inspired the film's centerpiece disaster.
Regardless of how well Gravity fares at this year's Academy Awards, it's a stunning achievement in filmmaking unlike anything that's ever come before. Cuarón and his team have created something truly special here, both in terms of technical innovation and storytelling mastery, and the visual effects, outstanding as they are serve the script and performances at all times, just as they should. For me, this is the best picture of 2013, and Cuarón the best director. Thankfully, Warner's Blu-ray release is stunning in its own right with a dazzling video presentation, a tremendously effective DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track and a three-hour complement of special features. More than a must-own release, it's one of the earliest front-runners for Best Blu-ray Release of the Year.