Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are hurtling towards the International Space Station. Gorgeous George’s jet pack has run out of fuel, so they’re bracing themselves for a rather rough impact. Sure enough, they smack into the expensive structure – and it sure looks like it hurts. They’re desperate now as they bump along its surface. Despite scrambling to hang on to something – anything – they fail miserably. There’s not many opportunities left before they hurtle into the endless vacuum of space…
Then, at the very last moment, Bullock’s foot gets caught on a wire. She’s stuck there with just enough reach to grasp hold of Clooney – just in the nick of time. Phew! But how long will the wire hold?
There’s no denying that Gravity is nail-biting stuff at time. While watching this scene in the theater, my body instinctively twitched in an experience akin to braking with your foot even though you’re in the passenger seat.
Cuarón has done a great job with the film. It’s a lean, sparse and effective spectacle – and for my money has the most efficient use of 3D since Avatar.
Shortly after seeing Gravity for the first time I re-watched Raiders of the Lost Ark for what must have been close to the thirtieth. While engrossed in that film’s many enjoyable set pieces, it struck me just how similar the two films are, and not just because both offer an unrelenting series of action-packed cliffhangers.
Raiders has a bunch of incredible special effects which are made all the more amazing by today’s standards considering they were all practical. All done in camera. Harrison Ford really was that close to that hissing cobra (howdidtheydothat?) If the film had been shot today, it would have contained a giant CGI stone ball, a too-close-for-comfort CGI snakes, and a CGI blood-splatter all over that tough-guy mechanic. Thank fuck no-one’s attempted to make an Indiana Jones film since the late 80s. (Shudder!)
The point is, the effects are so incredible because we have no idea how they did them. Okay, so there are a ton of retrospective behind-the-scene documentaries out there now, but sitting down and watching the film either for the very first time or getting totally absorbed in it for the umpteenth time, the effect is the same. Utter incredulity.
The same is true of Gravity.
Sure, we know that George and Sandra aren’t really in space. We know that they were probably surrounded by giant green screens for 99 percent of the shoot, but there’s still that sense of simultaneous astonishment and acceptance of what we see in front of us.
The effects in Gravity aren’t some shoddy Scorpion King-rendered abomination, nor are they the bar-setting effects seen in films like The Two Towers or Avatar. This is something different.
I knew that what I was seeing on screen wasn’t real. But I couldn’t figure out how they did it. (It’s too easy to hark back to 2001 at this point, but I won’t. Someone else probably already has, anyway.)
Instead, I’ll continue to draw on the similarities between Gravity and Raiders. Both make fantastic use of the best available special effects of their day. But more than that, both films are excellently made, feature believable performances, and are expert directed.
Both films require you to suspend your disbelief while doing everything possible to ensure that you’re not doing the heavy lifting in this regard.
At the end of the day, both films accomplish what they do because of the sum of all their parts. They adsorb and delight.
In short, they achieve that sense of pure magic and entertainment that the art of cinema is all about.