Gravity – Empty Space Filled

ImageI took the opportunity to see Gravity tonight. Houston has a theater with a very large IMAX screen and well-calibrated projection and audio reproduction. Seeing this movie in 3D was a wonderful cinematic experience, one I recommend to you. Here are a few reasons why:

The filmmakers used every technological contrivance available to make this movie, yet their use is restrained and at times invisible. Many films presented in 3D delight in suspending objects in front of the audience – a fun, but ultimately tiring novelty. Nobody wants to have things thrown at their face for two hours. The 3D of Gravity was so restrained that I often forgot that I was wearing the glasses. Rarely will objects come toward the viewer. The effect on the faces was subtle and humane. The sense of depth and distance was palpable.

The director, Alfonso Cuaron, is known for crafting long, sustained shots, advancing the narrative by allowing things to pass in front of the camera rather than by cutting to each one. It forces the audience to observe everything that occurs rather than have the experience spoon-fed to them by cutting the scene to what they should see next. He uses this cinematic technique here to great effect, many times artificially extending the length of the shot through clever transitions. For example, in order to cut one scene and start the next, he causes a CGI object to pass in front of the camera, blocking the entire view of the scene for no more than a frame or two. The transition between one scene and the next is so fluid we aren’t sure when it was that the scene actually changed. If I wasn’t spending some attention trying to find the cuts, I probably would have never seen them. In fact, there are several times where I know he cut it somewhere, but I was unable to tell exactly where he did.

CGI is ubiquitous in film now, and for those of us who prefer our movies to be cinematic rather than mere spectacle, the replacement of stunt work, locations, and characters has not always made movies better. Gravity has an enormous amount of CGI work in it. Most of the long opening scene was designed, created, and finished within the confines of a computer. The actors added little more than faces and voices. I cannot imagine what it was like for them to film the scenes. I am sure that only a few relatively small sets were ever built. The actors’ contribution was spare, but because of the filmmakers’ restraint, the faces and voices of the actors are all we need to connect to them.

In fact, the whole movie shows a kind of monastic restraint. Every thing the camera notices is important. Every detail is worth remembering. If it is better to wait with the character and not know what will happen next, then the director makes us wait. Nothing was added that was not necessary. No sound occurs when there is no atmosphere through which the sound waves propagate. No explosions occur without combustible oxygen. No deus ex machina to taunt the audience with hope, no jarring flashbacks, no pointless speeches. There are no long epilogues or final voiceovers. The final question the movie asks is contained within merely a second. When the movie is finished, it simply stops – over 30 minutes shorter than every other movie in the theater.

Even the audio showed restraint. Gravity was one of the few movies that actually use the entire dynamic range of an IMAX theater. If silence is needed, it is silent. If the audience should strain to hear faint faraway noises, that’s what we hear. When the scene calls for something loud, it is deafening. Most space movies are simply loud. If they are poorly made (like the new Star Trek films) they are not only loud, but loud for the entire watching duration. But Gravity was loud and soft. Booming at times, delicate at times. It was refreshing.

The 3D and the expansive exteriors, combined with the audio, make this a theater experience. Only the most impressive home theater setups could pull it off. My own setup is no slouch but it has no chance of reproducing the size and scale of the pictures and sound.

All the technical prowess (impressive that it is) would be wasted without story and acting. The story is simple, but that simplicity focuses what occurs on the screen. The acting was a revelation. Sandra Bullock has not always been a good actress, but now that she is approaching 50, having experienced both success and failure, gives a riveting performance. It is one of the best of her career, and one of the best performances this year. I hope that her work is not overshadowed by the filmmaking technique on display. She should receive proper recognition for being the human anchor for the vast machinery surrounding her.

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