In my mind, the mark of a truly great film is its ability to make viewers lose themselves in its storytelling. By that measurement, Gravity isn’t just the greatest film of 2013, but also one of the greatest films I’ve ever had the pleasure of losing myself in.
Looking back on my experiencing watching Gravity in theaters, I knew I was witnessing something truly special almost immediately. Director Alfonso Cuarón goes straight into his money shot with a gorgeous, absorbing and completely petrifying opening sequence, one which lasts an astounding 17 minutes. It’s a bold move, and one that grabbed me like I’ve rarely been grabbed by a film before. His images, of the blissful Planet Earth, of the cold emptiness of space and of two intrepid astronauts, scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), braving the most hostile of conditions in the pursuit of knowledge, are simply stunning.
Cuarón’s fluid manipulations of the camera allow him to orbit the astronauts much like a satellite, gracefully weaving in and out to properly capture both their most minute body movements and how noticeably the surrounding space dwarfs them. The opening minutes are characterized by a serene, silent beauty, which serves as one of the most visually inviting documentations of space in cinematic history. When disaster suddenly strikes, still in that same opening shot, space is transformed into such an eerily hostile, brutally violent atmosphere that I found myself shaking my head at the brazen stupidity of those human beings foolhardy enough to venture out into its depths. That Cuarón is able to so deftly move the camera as to capture both sides of the film’s fantastically rendered setting speaks to his indomitable skill as a director.
As Bullock’s harangued astronaut struggles for survival against depleting oxygen, deadly storms of satellite debris and, perhaps most pressingly, her own doubts about whether she has anything in her life left fighting for, Gravity feels at once visually marvelous and deeply personal. That’s the beauty of the film. For all Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s glorious visual accomplishments, Gravity is also an emotionally draining and spiritually enlightening experience. Cuarón fits the two halves together so masterfully that, looking back on it, I can’t conceive of a better union of emotionally charged storytelling and visual wonderment.
None of it would work without Bullock, who gives the crowning performance of her career. Despite the film’s groundbreaking visuals, it’s the actress’s poignant, heart-wrenching performance that allows Gravity to truly soar as more than a simple optical feast. Without her, the film would be essentially empty, but the fiery, steely commitment that she brings to Stone is tremendous. Especially when you factor in the intense physicality of her performance, working in simulated zero gravity and with absolutely no support from any other actor for most of the film, Bullock’s acting in Gravity is some of the finest from last year.
The beautifully symbolic nature of Stone’s journey in Gravity, from her trials by air, fire and water to the transformation from her womb-like appearance in a spacecraft to her final rise from watery depths (mirroring a Darwinian rise of man), lend the film an allegorical importance. Despite these overtones, Gravity is never even remotely preachy, and it has all the smarts necessary to back up its lofty ambitions. Throughout it all, I felt as if I was in the palm of a master storyteller, simply because I was.
Gravity may well prove to be Cuarón’s masterpiece. It’s both a groundbreaking spectacle and a gracefully relayed answer to daunting questions of survival, life, death and what it means to be human. You’ll watch, you’ll weep and you’ll wonder at how the director has succeeded in proving the transformative power of cinema.
Any of you who read my year-end list already know that I loved Gravity, and that’s why I’m so grateful that I had a chance to review it again, on glorious Blu-Ray. As we get ready for the Oscars on March 2nd, I’ll be crossing my fingers in hopes that the Academy will hand Alfonso Cuarón’s visually stunning, emotionally devastating masterpiece the awards it deserves (namely, all ten it was nominated for, including Best Picture). Hopefully, all the voters had a chance to see it in IMAX but, if not, this Blu-Ray is certainly the second-best way to view the film.
Gravity‘s 1080p Blu-Ray transfer is one of the best I’ve ever seen. In a movie as reliant on its effects as Gravity, strong video quality was absolutely a must, and Warner Bros.’s transfer is absolutely flawless. The huge color palette Cuarón employs, from the deep blues of Planet Earth to the inky blacks of deep space, is fantastically rendered, and there are never any issues with saturation to speak of. Skin tones are extremely well-done, and the use of shadows in Gravity is also top-notch. Details are eye-poppingly good, from floating beads of sweat to a tropical paradise to scratches on space helmets. Cuarón ensured that Gravity will be hailed as one of the greatest technical achievements in cinematic history, so it’s only fitting that the video transfer is one of the best I’ve seen.
The same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track, which works to staggering effect by combining Steven Price’s preeminent score and Cuarón’s impactful use of sound. You’ve never heard vibrations through space suits as aurally overwhelming as in Gravity, and the crispness of Bullock’s labored breathing is enough to make you short of breath. The silences in Gravity are also deceptively complex, simultaneously eerie and mournful, and the audio track balances overwhelming lack of sound in places with tiny background noises that deeply engross you in the film.
Gravity‘s Blu-Ray package includes an impressive, comprehensive assortment of special features, including:
- Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space
- Gravity: Mission Control
- Shot Breakdowns
Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space is a neat little documentary narrated by Ed Harris (also the voice of Mission Control in Gravity), which discusses the true problem behind a major plot point in Gravity. It explains the Kessler syndrome; basically that, sooner or later, accumulating debris orbiting Earth will set off a huge, catastrophic domino effect that could knock satellites out of the sky and cripple global communications. It runs 20 minutes, and though the tail end of that drags a little, it’s mostly an interesting watch.
Some might dismiss ‘Aningaaq,’ a short film directed by Gravity writer (and Alfonso’s son) Jonás Cuarón, as a superfluous extra designed solely to give Jonás a high-profile directing gig, but it’s actually a terrific companion piece to Gravity. Following Stone’s conversation with an Inuit fisherman from his perspective, it’s a beautifully desolate and lonely short film, touching on themes of life, death and emptiness. It’s gently written and filmed, but Orto Ignatiussen does a really fantastic job portraying the complexities of Aninqaaq as an individual, a father, a master (to his dogs) and a slave to fate and the merciless elements. I found ‘Aningaaq’ to be deeply moving. Anyone who enjoyed Gravity will want to give it a glance.
Now for the really good stuff. “Gravity: Mission Control” is a sprawling, nine-part, 106-minute long making-of feature that does a phenomenal job of fleshing out the work that went into making one of the most technically tricky films in cinematic history. The feature tracks Gravity from its inception to final editing, most interestingly delving into the challenges faced by the filmmakers with creating a quasi-Zero-G environment and bringing performances together with visual effects without letting one overpower the other. It’s fascinating to see how meticulous and frankly brilliant Cuarón is as a filmmaker, and it’s also stunning to consider how many years of effort went into creating Gravity. Absolutely must-see viewing for anyone who enjoyed the movie or has even the slightest interest in filmmaking.
Finally, we have the “Shot Breakdowns” featurette. It’s quite interesting despite only dissecting five different scenes. Luckily, they chose good ones to focus on (including the terrifying firestorm that ignites inside the ISS and Stone’s moment of womb-like isolation in Zero-G), but I still wish there had been more breakdowns to watch. Smartly composed and supremely insightful, the featurette elaborates on aspects of the “Mission Control” bonus feature without feeling redundant. With a film as visually arresting as Gravity, an incredible amount of work went into creating the perfect tone and visual balance for every scene, and the “Shot Breakdowns” featurette does a commendable job of taking viewers inside that thought process.
I could wax lyrical about Gravity for days on end, but I’ve really said my piece already. Warner Bros.’s Blu-Ray package for this remarkable film is unquestionably the best I’ve seen so far this year, as it does something I wasn’t sure could be done; it captures the staggering beauty, sheer technical brilliance and white-knuckle intensity of Cuarón’s film. With top-notch visuals, audio and bonus features, there’s absolutely nothing in the Blu-Ray transfer that should stand in the way of you buying it right now, which I strongly recommend you do. It’s a movie that shatters the previously-established boundaries of cinema and sets a new level of brilliance that all directors will now strive towards. It might seem inadequate to say that Gravity is more of an experience than a movie, but it’s true. And it’s one of the most heart-stoppingly powerful cinematic experiences you’re ever likely to have.
I want to give Alfonso Cuarón's transformative masterpiece all the stars in the sky, but a glowing five will have to do for this wondrous piece of movie-making magic.