One of the sweet memories during my trip to Chicago in 2010 was watching movies with my friend and mentor Roger Ebert during one sunny Thursday afternoon. We watched three movies together along with his lovely wife Chaz and his nurse Millie, and the last one was an short 3D IMAX film “Hubble 3D”(2010), which gave us a vivid sight of NASA astronauts working on the Hubble Space Telescope in May 2009. The Earth looked blue and beautiful on the giant screen, and the space looked awe-inspiring with its dark vastness, and it was also exciting to see real astronauts doing their jobs in this vast, beautiful canvas still feeling alien to many of us.
But I was acutely aware of how harsh and dangerous the environment surrounding astronauts is even when I was awed by those amazing moments shot in the space. This is a cold vacuum place where the possibility of survival is almost zero if you do not have any equipment to protect and sustain you, and, under the condition of zero gravity, Newton’s laws of motion are mercilessly applied on your every movement.
That was the main reason why Alfonso Cuarón’s technical tour-de-force “Gravity” instantly grabbed my attention from the beginning. Starting with a deceptively simple premise unfolded in the space, the movie strikes and dazzles us with its top-notch technical mastery to pull us into its urgent matter of life and death as well as the wondrous alien environment outside the Earth, and the result is an unforgettable visual mix of awe, suspense, beauty, terror, and poignancy you must experience for yourself at the movie theater along with other audiences.
The movie quietly begins like a calm, peaceful moment before storm. Around 600-km above the Earth, the Hubble Space Telescope is undergoing the latest repair service by NASA, and the mission is almost finished as Matt Kowalski(George Clooney), a veteran astronaut enjoying the last spacewalk in his career, and Dr. Ryan Stone(Sandra Bullock), a bio-medical engineer on her first space mission, and their fellow crew members are going through the last step in their mission. The opening sequence showing their work outside their space shuttle is stunning to say the least; it is certainly filled with lots of CGIs, but everything on the screen feels as real as what we have seen from many documentaries on space missions, and the camera gracefully floats here and there around the objects and characters in the space during this astonishing long-take sequence.
It is apparent that something bad will happen when the mission control center at Huston notify them of the debris of a destroyed Russian satellite approaching in high speed, and it does happen as the camera dynamically and chillingly captures this hair-raising moment with no blink. I heard later that such a disaster is not possible in the real world for several reasons, but its chaos feels plausible and palpable, and the movie firmly sticks to its realistic approach; its sound effects are sparse even though there are many clashes on the screen(no one can hear you having an accident in the space, you know), and the atmospheric score by Steven Price instead provides the urgent sense of danger on the soundtrack.
While all other crew members instantly died during this unprecedented disaster, Stone and Kowalski manage to survive, but their situation is not very good although they are still on the orbit around the Earth. The space shuttle is beyond repair, and the oxygen in their space suits is running out minute by minute, and only thing they can rely on for their possible survival is Kowalski’s thruster pack. At least, we can say that their bad circumstance is a little better than that terrifying moment in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”(1968); remember when one of the astronauts in the movie was helplessly flown away into the vast space during the last moment of his life?
As Stone and Kowalski struggle for their survival, the screenplay by the director Alfonso Cuarón and his co-writer Jonás Cuarón builds a familiar type of character drama on this perilous situation. The movie is essentially a universal story about facing an extreme situation alone, and the wide space surrounding the characters ironically feels claustrophobic and oppressive as desperation is accumulating inside them. The dialogues between Stone and Kowalski during their long, arduous struggle initially sound conventional at first, but we come to see two people helping and leaning on each other for survival, not the conventions.
The movie depends a lot on the performances of its two actors, and Sandra Bullock and George Clooney fill their respective roles with enough humanity to hold our attention. While Clooney’s role is substantial in the story, Bullock becomes the emotional center of the movie as going through many challenging moments where she should carry the story by herself. The movie becomes a bit sentimental when she tells about how much she was depressed by the loss of her young child, but it wisely holds itself with Bullock’s strong performance, and we gradually notice a certain irony inside her journey for survival.
With such a simple but solid drama as their foundation, Cuarón and his crew continue to provide terrific moments to be appreciated on big screen. The special effects supervised by Tim Webber in the movie are flawless, and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who did an amazing job in Cuarón’s previous film “Children of Men”(2006), will probably get an Oscar nomination for his another innovate work here in this film. I particularly love the moment when the camera smoothly moves into Stone’s helmet to present her subjective view to us and then effortlessly moves out into the space; it is certainly helped by special effects and editing, but it is done so well that we are not much aware of its technical aspects while identifying more with her crisis.
Many people have already said that “Gravity” should be watched in 3D, and my experience with the 2D version on Thursday night confirmed again my personal opinion on 3D; as shown in “Avatar”(2009), “Hugo”(2011), and “Life of Pi”(2012), 3D is an effective visual tool as long as it is handled by the filmmakers with a clear vision of how to use it. Although I am happy to report to you that there was no particular problem with watching the movie in 2D and saving extra charge, I could clearly sense during the screening that its visceral moments could be improved a lot by 3D or 3D IMAX.
As a matter of fact, I watched it again at the 3D IMAX screening room on Saturday morning, and its 3D effect is indeed another case of the effective use of 3D for bringing you closer to how characters see and feel on the screen(A note to filmmakers: 3D is for immersing the audiences into more intimate or more vivid experience, not for something big, blasting, and busy like blockbuster action films). While you sometimes see lots of objects being floated on the screen as expected, these effects mostly serve for the dramatic effects in the story. One particular scene feels more desperate if you watch it in 3D; I will not describe that scene in details, but let’s say I liked the way how Cuarón makes that scene very memorable just with one droplet of some salty liquid.
“Gravity” is a Space film both thoughtful and entertaining, and it is the best cinematic experience of this year. As he successfully did in “Children of Men”, Alfonso Cuarón immerses us into the reality of his story and characters, and the movie seldom loses the human dimension amid its technical details thanks to his masterful direction and two talented performers. While watching the Earth and its thin atmosphere on the screen, I thought about how precious and fragile our planet is in the middle of the space – and how small and insignificant we are compared to its seemingly endless scope.
As my mind goes around the great moments of “Gravity”, I keep recalling that nice moment of watching “Hubble 3D” along with Ebert. Like many of you, I miss him more as I have kept watching new films he would probably be excited about, and I frequently wondered about what he would think of them. I am not sure about anything, so I cannot say anything, but I just wish you were watching “Gravity” somewhere, Roger.