About a week ago I watched the highly praised, yet also highly criticized Gravity. To use an appropriate metaphor for the film, I was blown away. All it took was the first scene and I was hooked. (The fact that the first scene is almost 13 minutes long does undermine this statement a little).
The Opening Scene
We (the camera) begin by gently gliding in space, miles above Earth, as if a satellite in orbit. Slowly, a speck in the distance materializes into a floating spaceship named Explorer, which we (the camera) glide around weightlessly and effortlessly.
Outside this spaceship are three astronauts, two attached by cable hooks and one floating around with the aid of a newly-designed jetpack. “Send my regards to engineering,” space vet Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) remarks as he floats in and out of the frame, freer than a bird. Astronaut Shariff Dasari completes his task and dances in celebration, which Kowalski describes as “the Macarena, but that’s only a best guess on my part.” The scene continues, now zooming in on third member Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is occupied trying to get her board initialized to send data back to Earth. For what purpose, we don’t know. Stone is more scientist than astronaut, meaning she is not well acquainted the effects of space on the human body. Despite an elevated heart rate, she repeatedly insists she is “fine”.
Except for Stone’s minor struggles, everything seems fine outside the explorer, far from danger even. Kowalski floats around to country music and tell jokes to Houston, some of which they’ve already heard during his prior space missions.
As Stone continues to work on her system, now with the aid of Kowalski, we hear communication that a Russian satellite has been struck, causing a floating storm of deadly debris, though said debris isn’t projected to interfere with our astronauts. At first, it wasn’t clear whether this was just an example of routine talk during a space mission, or something that would end up impacting, well, everything. Things were going smoothly so far for The Explorer, I soon realized they likely were going too smoothly, and danger likely where we were headed.
If you haven’t forgotten, this is all occurring in the first scene, in one take. As Stone and Kowalski enjoy light banter as they work, he remarks, “You gotta admit one thing, you can’t beat the view.” Now seven minutes into the scene, the camera rotates as if on roller coaster loop—but in no hurry—from Kowalski’s face to a full view of Earth again and back to Kowalski. Even as a viewer I have to admit, he’s right.
Now, just over eight minutes into the scene, we receive transmission that the aforementioned debris won’t pass by as harmlessly as previously thought. In fact, a storm cloud of metal, traveling at thousands of miles per hour is heading right towards The Explorer. And so begins a frenetic effort by our astronauts to survive in an environment so unforgiving to survival, outer space.
For the next four and half minutes, havoc is wreaked upon The Explorer and its passengers. The camera follows Kowalski and he zooms around the craft, attempting to do whatever he can to save himself and Dr. Stone. Soon the debris pieces bombard the ship, killing Dasari and whoever was inside, and also sending Dr. Stone into a tumbling frenzy into the unending depths of space, out of Kowalski’s range of sight, and without anything to save her. And so concludes the opening scene of Gravity. Wow.
A few things to say at this point. First, the direction in this first scene alone elevates director Alfonso Curaón to the top of the list of the most talented directors working today. I don’t know the technical details of how this scene was shot. Right now, I’m not sure I want to know, CGI, whatever. The point is the effect created was breath-taking, awe-inspiring and unlike anything I’ve seen in a movie before. The choreography required for this massive 13 minute doozy of a scene is unfathomable.
Generally speaking, the effect of a long take is to make the action on the scene appear more real, more believable that what’s on the screen actually happened, because to some extent that’s literally true. For a sometimes difficult to believe movie like Gravity, Cuarón’s use of long takes throughout the film is essential. It certainly didn’t make his job any easier, but it helped make Gravity into the heart-gripping thriller it is.
Part of the reason Gravity works is because for film, space works. The delicate inertial danger constantly present in Gravity translates beautifully to the screen. As Sandra Bullock torpidly tumbles away from the ruined Explorer, her desperate cries for help gradually turn into a sobering realization that her current supply of oxygen is likely her last. In the vast empty of void of space, there’s nothing to change her course, ever. The dread that creeps up in her in the tiny confines of her spacesuit, I feel it.
I’d like to contrast this with the supposed thrills from another movie I watched recently, Lone Survivor. In this war film, the intensity of the action comes primarily through gun fights. There’s a reason almost all gun fights in movies devolve into fist fights—there’s not much cinematic suspense in them. Take for example, a typical sequence in Lone Survivor: Shot of Taliban man on hill. Shot of Mark Wahlberg running among rocks below while bullets fly off near his head, prompting him to do a half-hearted “duck” to avoid future bullets. There’s not much suspense there. It’s not even simply that I know that he’s not going to get shot; it’s that even if he does, it wouldn’t be terribly dramatic anyway. One quick motion of the finger.
Besides long takes, Cuarón beautifully uses other techniques offered by his unusually unconstrained camera. Most notably, in one scene the camera goes from viewing Dr. Stone in space, to inside her helmet, to back outside. The change in perspective brings out empathy for our tragically situated heroine. Her survival isn’t a matter of indifference, we actively feel the fear she does, and understand the impossibility of the task laid before her to return to Earth.
To conclude, Gravity is a wonderfully intense and visual experience. The outrage people express at the plausibility of certain events, at small deviations from physical laws, and at the lack of character depth is 100 percent trumpeted by the drama on screen. To me, these are petty arguments compared to the colossal cinematic achievement that is Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.