At its core Gravity is a classic survival fable. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is no astronaut, but NASA sends her into orbit as a matter of necessity. She’s the only person who can fix a key component on a telescope. While performing the repair, the detonation of a nearby satelite causes a debris field to leave Ryan stranded thousands of miles above the Earth.
In describing his 1971 film, Get Carter, Mike Hodges remarked on his good fortune to have Michael Caine at his disposal. At last he was working with a real movie star, a class unique among actors in that they could sell a close up. Their faces could display a variety of emotions through the slightest of expressions. Forget what you heard in that throwaway segment of “Waking Life”, great films need great stars. Gravity proves this once and for all.
What else is “Gravity” but a series of close-ups? The bulk of the film consists of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s faces superimposed, composited, onto cgi space suits. Gravity in fact demands the most movie-stars of movie-stars. Frequently a face will get obscured, by a glare, from the condensation of heavy breathing, flung into the distance until the distinct features are lost. Otherwise the spacesuits are incredibly bulky, the actors lose their bodies.
Sandra Bullock may not place especially high on the list of our current actors, but she’s a certifiable A-lister. Who else could’ve played Ryan from the current crop of respected actresses? Tilda Swinton? Julianne Moore? They wouldn’t endear themselves to the audiences as immediately Bullock. Meanwhile other movie stars, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, their ilk just don’t have the gravitas. Even Angelina Jolie, director Cuaron’s first choice for the role, would come across as too steely here. Bullock can play a character with a core of strength, but who still needs to fight to find it.
Finally though Gravity points to a bright future in digital film and that filmmakers are finally unlocking the potential of these effects. The first people to get a crack at CGI were the leading lights of the effects era. Your Spielbergs, Lucases, Zemenkises, Hensons, etc… They used the ever increasing power of computer effects to basically recreate what they were doing with models and animatronics. Whereas once the dinosaur would’ve been a puppet, now it was animated in a computer for some shots.
Starting with 300, the newer generation of directors have gained a real understanding of the full potential of digital and CGI. It isn’t about making a more realistic Spiderman villian, or cutting together a complex shot. Modern effects work allows for a truly dynamic canvas. In films like 300 that can mean flesh-and-blood actors inhabiting an amorphous, physically impossible landscape. On the other end of the spectrum, Gravity can immesh itself in an vacuum with a fairly accurate representation of physics (at least when the plot doesn’t demand otherwise).
In the fantastic opening shot, where the space shuttle emerges from the blackness of space until the camera is zoomed in on Bullock’s gloved hands, establishes the vastness of Gravity’s realm. There’s a reminder of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, of Omar Sharif’s black camel rider emerging from mirages above the horizon of the desert. That sequence made the desert miles wide. Gravity’s canvas stretches into tens of thousands of miles.