Back in elementary school we were asked, "What would you like to be when you grow up?" There was always at least one kid who would emphatically declare "astronaut" as their career choice, never mind that they will probably all end up working in cubicles. For the kids who said they wanted to be an astronaut comes Gravity (2013), which will likely make anyone set on remaining earthbound.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) in command of his last flight before retiring. During a spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, Mission Control in Houston warns the team about a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite, which has caused a chain reaction forming a cloud of high speed space debris. The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone - tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness.
We are reminded at the beginning of the movie that living in space is impossible, with the extreme temperature fluctuations, lack of atmosphere, oxygen, or anything that could carry sound. The movie goes on to prove all of these things--he lack of sound most specifically. The sound was amazing in Gravity. Horrible catastrophes go on around the characters but we hear no explosions, scraping metal, or anything. The sound effects we hear are the slightly muffled sound of objects that are picked up and manipulated by the astronauts, which they would probably hear through their oxygen filled suits. Even when an alarm is going off in a shuttle, we begin to hear it gradually as the chamber fills with air and then at full force once the chamber is safe to breath in. That was a really neat detail that I was highly impressed with.
Another fascinating aspect about Gravity is that is basically runs in real time. There's no real scene changes that suggest a passage of time ("The next day..." or "several hours later"). We are lead to believe that all this is happening in one continuous stretch of time. To be fair, trying to get from the crash site in orbit to a distant space station is probably going to take quite a bit longer than what the hour and a half film implies. Still, we're experiencing every moment of the story, along with the characters since we never leave them and it gives the movie this quality of truthfulness that I don't recall experiencing in a movie before.
The camera work is amazing. The opening sequence in particular is absolutely incredible! It is one long continuous shot that lasts for thirteen minutes, making it one of the longest "tracking shots" in Hollywood history. It introduces the characters, how they work as astronauts, shows us the crisis, the shuttle being wrecked, and Stone being hurled off into space. The camera snakes in and out the shuttle, wreckage, and into space suits to give us a first person look at what it looks like to be spinning around without a stable point of reference in sight. The thought of drifting off aimlessly into oblivion with no chance of stopping or slowing down is terrifying, and Gravity captures that feel beautifully. Cinephiles will absolutely drool over this trailblazing bit of cinematography and everyone will be on the edge of their seat by the time it's over.
There are other calmer scenes that defy imagination. The story takes place in space and of course there is no gravity in space. There were many scenes that I cannot tell how they were filmed. There is so much movement and flailing around that hanging the actors on the end of suspension cords and harnesses simply wouldn't have been possible. It's not like they could actually film in outer space, but you never would have guessed it.
Several people insisted that I watch Gravity in 3D, and I'm glad I did! I haven't seen 3D effects quite that detailed and believable since I saw Avatar. A majority of the movie was filmed in 3D, which gives it outstanding detail and even subtlety in the 3D visuals. Having objects and debris float around in zero gravity was excellently rendered in 3D, including a pen floating toward the screen in a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a rare case where I think the 3D truly enhances the movie and makes it better.
Gravity was amazing to say the least. The acting was great, the story was tense, the visual effects were second to none and draw you in quickly. It's not so much of an action film as it is a disaster/survival sort of story. There's no antagonist apart from Murphy's Law. It's a story about psychological change and resilience in the aftermath of a catastrophe and the will to survive in the face of inevitable death as well as the futility of rescue. It's exciting, thought provoking, and beautifully filmed. I think this is a must see movie, catch this in theaters if you still can, preferably in 3D. This is also one to watch for on Blu-Ray 3D once it's available.
Can you think of another "tracking shot" that you were particularly impressed by? I mentioned a really good one in The Avengers. What are some others? Comment below and tell me all about it!