Judge Erich Asperschlager can see his house from here.
"Do you want to go back, or do you want to stay here?"
Every so often a film comes along that's so far out on the cutting edge it couldn't have been made any earlier. Often these groundbreaking films are recognized for visual effects that push the limits of technology. Jurassic Park and The Lord of the Rings ushered in new decades of computer generated imagery, while Pixar continues to set the standard for CG animation. In the late '90s, George Lucas tried to meld human actors and digital creatures in his Star Wars prequels with middling results. If only he'd waited another decade.
Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón's Gravity took more than four years to make, but it's hard to imagine it could have been finished any sooner. These filmmakers did what Lucas couldn't, seamlessly combining computer generated effects with live actors in a way that feels real. Technology is advancing so rapidly, it's only a matter of time before live action movies are made entirely within computer programs. Gravity is the first film to make that future seem possible.
The film's technical achievements are impressive, but Gravity succeeds because the effects aren't just eye candy. They create the framework for a powerful, character-driven story of survival. It's a small film told on a massive scale; an indie drama backed with big studio money, and crafted by a master filmmaker. Gravity was my favorite moviegoing experience of last year, and it's already in the running for best Blu-ray release of 2014.
Facts of the Case
On a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, a space shuttle is caught in the path of orbiting space debris that destroys the ship and kills everyone aboard except medical officer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Adrift in space, the pair marshal their dwindling resources and set out for a Russian space station, desperate to find a way back to Earth before the cloud of debris comes back around again.
Gravity is a remarkable film, though I fear it will be known in years to comes more for its special effects than Cuarón's singular storytelling. It's a movie that takes huge risks. There are only two main actors, with most of the screen time devoted to just one person. The film trades quick edits for unbroken scenes—including an opening shot that lasts more than 13 minutes. It doesn't have big reveals or twists. Where most blockbusters run an overstuffed two and a half hours, Gravity clocks in at a tight 91 minutes. It is a very simple story about a woman who must choose whether she wants to live or die. There are thrilling action sequences, but they aren't shot like other action films. Gravity will inspire filmmakers, but I doubt we will see imitators. It's just too much its own thing.
Gravity's box office popularity inspired a rash of online articles pointing out all its scientific inaccuracies. Those posts provided a teaching opportunity, but missed the point of the film. It's too bad a pivotal moment in Gravity's plot hinges on bad science, but the movie has an internal logic built around telling a compelling story. More interesting were articles about the film's amazing Zero-G special effects, and just how much of what's shown onscreen was created in a computer. The specifics of Gravity's effects comprise the bulk of the Blu-ray bonus features (more on that in a bit), but the final result is as convincing in this 2.40:1 1080p transfer as it was in the theater. Watching the film on a TV doesn't compare to the experience of seeing it on the big screen, but this is a faithful reproduction in every other way. The Earth is a rich background of blue oceans, white clouds, green jungles, and sun-drenched deserts, set against the inky blacks of outer space. With sharp detail in close ups and the widest of wide shots, Gravity provides a stunning depiction of a view few of us will ever see in person. It's the next best thing to being in a space museum's IMAX theater. This Blu-ray is a stunner.
The film's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is immersive—an active, open soundscape that ranges from the near silence of space to the explosions and alarms of machines being torn to pieces. The mix is woven together by Steven Price's score, a combination of atmospheric effects, soaring vocals, and orchestration that help tell Cuarón's visual story.
Whether the film and its effects hold up in years to come or not (I bet they will), Gravity marks a movie milestone. This Blu-ray release isn't just a stellar audiovisual experience. It comes with extensive bonus features detailing the first-of-its-kind filmmaking process with more than two hours of behind the scenes featurettes.
• The main extra is "Gravity: Mission Control"—an exhaustive nine-part, hour and forty-six minute making-of documentary that takes viewers through the process of making the film. Faced with the problem of how to make it look like actors were in Zero-G, Cuarón's team tried a variety of solutions, including wirework, mocap, and filming on the "vomit comet." They eventually handed the task to British effects house Framestore, working with animators through a long pre-visualization process to map out the entire film on computers. When it came time to sync Bullock and Clooney with the animation, they turned to even more new technology: cameras mounted on robotic arms carried out precise movements, filming actors who were strapped into tilt harnesses surrounded by LED screens projecting moving patterns to create believable light reflections—all under the artistic eye of the director and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. "Mission Control" also profiles the composer, prop department, and actors—especially Sandra Bullock, who spent long days in uncomfortable harnesses acting alone against nothing but stand-in props and her own imagination. It's almost a shame that the success of her performance is measured by how effortless it looks onscreen.
• "Shot Breakdowns" (36:48) These featurettes go into even more detail about five specific aspects of the film: the astronauts' CG visors, International Space Station fire sequence, the visual metaphor of Stone's "rebirth," the unique way sound is handled in space, and final splashdown.
• "Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space" (22:28) This documentary, narrated by Ed Harris, looks at the growing threat of space debris in Earth's orbit, and several possible solutions. While only tangentially related to Gravity, it's fascinating.
• "Aningaaq" (10:11 with intro; 6:53 without): This short film, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón's son Jonás, shows us the other side of Ryan Stone's radio conversation in the Russian capsule. "Aningaaq" tries to create parallels in the story of a man who has to make a difficult decision of his own, but it's so tied to the dialogue from the film that it just feels forced. The short isn't terrible, but it's not essential viewing either.
• DVD Copy, Digital Copy, and UltraViolet Download
Gravity is a small story told on a huge scale, with CGI special effects so impressive it's possible that many viewers won't know how little of it is "real." I'm sure that suits Alfonso Cuarón just fine. Where most effects-driven blockbusters want to show off the bells and whistles, Gravity's visual wizardry is all in service of a beautiful, simple story about one woman's struggle for survival. It's a rare film whose impact is as much in the quiet, emotional moments as the explosive action. The Blu-ray release boasts reference-quality image and audio, with hours of bonus features that will appeal not only to fans of the film but anyone interested in how movies are made.
I have a good feeling about this mission. Not Guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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