At 600KM above Planet Earth the temperature
fluctuates between +258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit
There is nothing to carry sound
No air pressure
Life in space is impossible
Sometimes it's near impossible to talk about why you like a film without, you know, talking about the whole thing. As such, this review will contain one quickie (hopefully) zero-spoiler review followed by a more in-depth version that, reader be warned, will dance around mid to later plot points, twists, and setpieces.
THE SHORT OF IT
'Gravity' was co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, an extremely talented filmmaker who has helmed a string of visually dynamic movies -- 'Children of Men', 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban', 'Y Tu Mama Tambien', 'A Little Princess', and 'Great Expectations' (1998) -- in multiple genres. 'Gravity' extends Cuarón's infamous fluid camera movements and long takes to an extreme, all while asking the terrifying what if: when an unexpected chain reaction of hurtling debris slams into the middle of a routine Space Shuttle mission, killing all but two of the crew members, can the survivors find a way home?
The film stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a bit of an everywoman on her first mission to install a prototype on the Hubble Telescope, and the ever-charming George Clooney as Matt Kowalski, a charming veteran astronaut on his final mission. Together, Stone and Kowalski must push past their fears to do the impossible, all before the oxygen in their space suits runs out.
Simply put, 'Gravity' is my favorite cinematic experience of the last few years. I've seen it seven times since October (five of those theatrically, the last one a week ago as part of a double feature with 'IMAX: Hubble 3D'). It's an excruciatingly tense, edge-of-your seat survival thriller with gobsmacking visuals, almost-never-ending suspense, and photo-realistic visual effects on top of a beautifully poetic metaphor for rebirth. This is a movie that screams, no matter how hard it gets, no matter how scared you become, never give in... Never stop fighting.
Not everyone will love 'Gravity' -- some for its simplicity, some for the scientific compromises made -- and that's perfectly okay too. But I sincerely hope everyone gives it a chance. If it's not too late, try to find it on the largest screen possible. I personally found the IMAX 3D version to be visually arresting, though I enjoyed the Dolby Atmos sound mix more, which was only available in a limited number of theatres during the initial release. If it's not still out in cinemas as you read this, which is very likely despite its recent Oscar nominations, please check out this Blu-ray on the biggest TV or projector setup you can find. Like 'Lawrence of Arabia', 'Jurassic Park', 'Avatar', or any grand Hollywood adventure, 'Gravity' is a motion picture experience meant for the big screen with booming sound. The bigger the better.
THE LONG CON...VERSATION
"All of these tools were used to capture the thematic and emotional story we were trying to tell." - Alfonso Cuarón.
Okay, so you've hopefully already seen the movie (final spoiler warning). My aim isn't to ruin the movie, or to give a beat-by-beat synopsis of the plot, but the truth is you should see 'Gravity' the first time with knowing as little as possible. However, for me to fully describe what parts I love most, or what could possibly improve, I'm going to have to dive into key sequences.
First, I know the short review was a wee bit hyperbolic. I genuinely, sincerely, enthusiastically love 'Gravity', but let's be super clear. In no way am I defining "favorite" as "best." Sure, if I were to make another Best Of 2013 List, I would slap 'Gravity at the tippity top along with 'Frozen' and 'The Wolf of Wall Street'. But I kinda hate lists. I don't get them. There is no Best in filmmaking. Business objectives be damned, at the end of the day movies are hugely subjective emotional experiences (aka ART). And though 'Gravity' is cleaning up at various awards season ceremonies, I'm so, so glad Warners released this Blu-ray before the actual announcements. Right now, a couple weeks before the Academy Awards, it's looking like a bakeoff between 'Gravity', '12 Years a Slave', and maaaaaybe 'American Hustle'. But screw that.
Movies aren't a competition.
I know the one trillion award shows and weekend box office reporting make movies seem like a sport. Where you can get behind Team Movie A, and look down at Team Movie B because they, um, like something you don't. But it's silly and distracting.
[Hey, Palmer, get off the tangential soapbox!]
Sorry. My point: it doesn't matter how successful 'Gravity' is, or ho many awards it collects when all things are said and done. Hell, it's even too early to talk about whether or not 'Gravity' will, or will not, attain some type of lasting cultural relevance. All that I care about is what 'Gravity' was trying to to, and how truly successful it is in achieving those goals.
To explore this, I want to talk about how I experience(d) 'Gravity'. God, I hope this makes some sense, but watching this movie, I bounce between three simultaneous experiences. Let's call them The Thrill Ride, The Metaphors, and The Filmmaking.
The Thrill Ride. On the surface 'Gravity' is roller coaster cinema in the best possible sense. I happen to adore what's called survival or "contained" action thrillers. Give me the likes of 'Die Hard', 'Speed', 'The Edge', 'The Descent', or 'The Grey' any day of the week, and I will immediately get sucked into the story. I love that sense of isolation, of people thematically learning to let go, of people fighting to live. It's extremely human to imagine a terrifying situation and wonder, "oh, shit, what in the hell would I do?"
In that sense, 'Gravity' is a exercise in abject terror, tension, and release. Hitchock would be proud. It knows when to ramp up and give the audience a breather, but it never ever, ever cuts away and lets you leave your protagonist. Dr. Stone begins as an everywoman -- a character we don't know very much about and, therefore, thrust our own selves onto. After the Kessler Syndrome inspired chain reaction kills everyone and leaves them stranded -- in fucking space! -- Kowalski must save Stone because she can't let go. At the beginning of the her journey, Stone would have died. But because Kowalski pushes Stone to change, and helps her face her own past, Stone is reborn (more on rebirth below). Stone transforms from an everywoman into a veteran astronaut, which is not only awesome, but also believable as we learn more and more about her training. She's not an everywoman at all. She never was. She sheds that fear, and becomes a very special person who does the impossible.
And all the spectacle? Wow! As I said before, it never ends. It's just a shit-show of unrelenting challenge and obstacles, filmed in a way that is both intense and beautiful. Some folks couldn't handle 'Gravity' in cinemas because it made them too motion sick, and I really feel for those people. Because I've never been to space, but at the end of 'Gravity', my palms were sweaty and it was a relief to step out of the theatre.
The Metaphors. Underneath the ride and the story, we get a beautiful tapestry of metaphors for Stone's rebirth. And the best part, this isn't some secret code designed to be snooty or hidden. Nor is it beaten to death by anyone talking about it. Nope, it's all visual and super clear. This is a story of a woman who ends up stranded alone. She is afraid. And she can't do what is right because, as I've said, she can't let go. But when Stone "dies" (not literally, though this happens after her oxygen runs out when she is outside the I.S.S... so do with that what you will), she finds the sanctity of the I.S.S., which is clearly meant to evoke a womb. It nourishes her, brings her back to life. From there, Stone grows and fights for her survival, seeking guidance under various faiths (we see Jesus in the Soyuz, Buddha in the Shenzhou capsule), and eventually crawls out of the water in a clear nod to Darwinism -- at first on all fours, and then rising to two feet, taking her first steps anew in the primordial ooze.
Another fun visual metaphor: the use of Earth geography to help define the character's arcs in the story. The Earth is clearly the film's third character (the filmmakers say as much in the making-of documentaries), a representation of all that is good and protective. Mother Earth, therefore, acts not only as a goal, but as a balance to the infinite blackness of space (of death). Further, various geographical locations to stand in for where Stone is on her journey. When she is most alone, there's nothing but space in the background. When Kowalski is helping Stone to the I.S.S., they travel over Africa and the Middle East -- that is, they are on a biblical-esc journey, two lost souls crossing the desert. Later, when Stone is at her lowest, she and the Soyuz capsule are "stranded" over the frozen, glacial north. And, my personal favorite: when Stone is given a moment to rest at the film's mid-point, she looks down on the "eye of the storm"... seconds before all hell breaks loose. Simple layers, but a lot of fun to think about.
The Filmmaking. At the cross section of the literal story and clear metaphors, I've watched and rewatched 'Gravity' so many times simply because I am in awe of Alfonso Cuarón... along with his co-writer Jonás Cuarón, their producing partners, the cinematographer, the composer, the production designers, the actors, the visual effects departments, the sound mixers and re-recorders. Everyone.
Tip of the hat. Raise of the pint. Slow of the clap.
From a technical standpoint, whether or not you love, loathe, like, hate, or don't care about this movie, 'Gravity is a masterclass. It's absolutely stunning in just about every way. I've always been impressed with Cuarón's visual style. He often uses fluid steadicam shots as well as long takes (or oners), which are not only impressive from a production standpoint, but really sell being in the moment with the characters. Basically, when a team of movie makers do something bold in their filmmaking, I can't help but cheer and be impressed at the circus-like bravdo.
'Gravity' also has a lean, tight script. It starts slow, ramps up quickly, and though it never really lets the audience off the hook, knows when to give us a moment to breath, or a moment to hope, or a moment to give up and accept all is lost. What makes the script particularly impressive, to me at least, is how everything structurally serves two purposes. Not only in the thrill ride / metaphor sense discussed above, but also in the way it sets up future payoffs, like the location of the two space stations, Dr. Stone's ability to pilot certain vehicles, how important parachutes and certain landing mechanisms will be, how Stone thinks to use a fire extinguisher 'Wall-E' style, the recurring usage of oxygen running out. I've talked to some who don't always like all the answers the film gives (for example, the reason for the initial chain reaction), but nothing in this movie is irrelevant or unexplained.
Finally, the visual effects are pretty incredible. And, if you get a chance to watch the Blu-ray's behind-the-scenes documentaries, you'll be even more impressed. Sure, there are a few shots here or there that aren't perfect, but generally 'Gravity' has my favorite type of special effects: the invisible ones. To best mimic the look and feeling of zero gravity, the filmmakers had to invent an entire new way of photographing the actors. What they ended up doing was -- for much of the film -- concentrating on filming actors' faces or bodies. The sense of movement, of floating, was created with a combination of relatively-still actors, motion control cameras, and a brand new lighting system dubbed the "light box" -- think of it like being in a small room with LED TVs all around you. At the end of the day, 'Gravity' is essentially an animated movie that looks 99% photo realistic (especially when comparing it to the Hubble documentary).
But is there anything I do NOT like?
Eh, sorta. We all have our own little things that bug us. A line of dialog here or there, etc. But the one thing that I would actively try to change is the moment that Kowalski sacrifices himself to save Stone (about 32 minutes in). Personally, I think it works, but I've talked to a few folks who seem to think Kowalski and Stone are at a full stop, and his presumed death is therefore an unnecessary gesture / "a plot hole." Because he's weightless, right? Actually, no. He's not "weightless." Kawalski and Stone are falling through space. Because of the scene's choreography, I can understand why it looks like, to some, as though these two characters have stopped, when they're still arcing outwards at the end of the parachute straps. There's even a key shot where you can see the parachute moving around the I.S.S. Also, Kowalski and Stone probably talk a little longer than they should. One solve may have been to orchestrate the scene so that Kowalski and Stone come together sooner, so it can play out as they're swinging on the pendulum at the end of those straps (technically, that IS what is happening, but perhaps it could be more clear).
Time will tell if 'Gravity' has any lasting impact on cinema or the culture at large, but for me this film is already one of many personal favorites. Though nothing can recreate your first viewing on the largest screen possible, I would also argue this thrill ride of tension and suspense improves, or at least maintains its initial impact, on repeat viewings thanks to bold filmmaking and detailed layers of visual metaphors.
To read more about 'Gravity', from those much smarter than I, check out these essays:
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Gravity' debuts on Blu-ray as a two-disc (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD UltraViolet) edition in a standard case. 2D Trailers include ads for UltraViolet and 'Her'. There is also a three-disc edition, which includes everything here, plus a Blu-ray 3D version of the movie.
'Gravity' hurdles onto Blu-ray with a pristine MPEG-4 AVC encode, presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1.
Though my preferred format / experience is 3D, 'Gravity' is also a two dimensional stunner. Detail and resolution are endless, from the pores on the actors faces to the various space suits and vehicles. Space itself is filled with inky blackness and infinite stares. Shots of, or reflecting, the Earth are particularly gorgeous, with bold and bright colors across the entire spectrum. Skin tones are surprisingly accurate, though they tend to reflect various lighting sources (as they should). It is here where the filmmakers' "light box" really grounds the film, giving accurate iris movement and corneal reflections.
As for flaws, I simply don't see any. No banding, no macroblocking, no damage or dirt, no crush, no edge enhancement, no noise in darker moments. Nada. 'Gravity' looks terrific.
'Gravity' tears onto Blu-ray with a delicious, demonstration-worthy 5.1 DTS-HA MA surround sound track that is just shy of perfection.
Though the track is wonderfully diverse in its use of silence, dynamic range, and blockbuster aggression, I have to ask the folks at Warners one question: 5.1? Seriously? I hate to sound like a whiny blogger, but the companies promoting this film, theatrically, went out of their way to point out that the base mix was in 7.1 before the Dolby Atmos conversion. But we only get 5.1? On the surface, that kinda blows. In terms of actual performance, it doesn't matter too much. I put on Dolby ProLogic IIx, and the 5.1 track matrixed perfectly around my home cinema.
Let's talk about why this mix is so special. The filmmakers set out to recreate what it's like going to space where there is no sound. A silent movie would be pretty boring, so they did two things that create a unique sound experience. First, in locking the soundtrack to Dr. Stone's POV, we hear sounds only she could conceivably hear -- that is, only voices from her headset or sounds carried through vibrations as she physically touches things (also, any environment with oxygen has full sound). Second, Steve's Price's heart-pounding musical score is sometimes used like a traditional sound effects -- accentuating movement, and heightening the emotions -- basically, where some movies would focus on the big BOOM of a collision, Price's music instead features a concussive musical movement.
In addition to surround immersion, rock solid (though not obliterating) LFE, and some fun use of dialog placement, the real treat of 'Gravity' on Blu-ray (and in cinemas) is the sound mixes incredible dynamic range. The filmmakers dare to make some voices too quiet to hear because they are too far away. They'll also juxtapose cascading sounds of increase chaos with absolute silence. What a treat.
So why isn't this track a full 5 stars? Look, it sounds great, it really does a fine job of reproducing the sound experience. If HDD had a 4.75 or 4.9, I'd probably go with that, but this home mix sadly doesn't compare to the Dolby Atmos theatrical mix, which was far more articulate in terms of sound placement -- voices, effects, music -- and power. Granted, my local Atmos cinema has a far more expensive sound system than my personal setup, but this Blu-ray is ever-so-slightly shy of the home cinema perfection I was expecting. But only because I've heard a better version. For many of you, this Blu-ray will be a 5.0-star reference track. And there are lots of great demo moments (particularly chapters 1, 6, and 8-9).
'Gravity' orbits onto Blu-ray with nearly three hours worth of special features (including HD Exclusives). I wish there was an audio commentary, and that the documentaries were a little more fly-on-the-wall, like say 'Prometheus' or 'Avatar', but there's a lot of interesting stuff for fans and future filmmakers to learn. Also, why weren't the trailers included? They were incredible.
The following bonus materials can be found on both the Blu-ray and the DVD:
'Gravity' is one of my favorite cinematic experiences of the last few years, thanks to tight scripting, bold filmmaking, and master craftsmanship. As a Blu-ray, 3D is definitely the way to go -- giving viewers that window into another world feeling -- though this two dimensional version is pretty great too. The 5.1 sound mix is also amazing, though not quite articulate as some 7.1 mixes, nor the film's own theatrical Dolby Atmos mix. The Special Features offer great insight into how this movie was constructed. Tossing in a commentary and trailers would have rounded out the set.
While I would prefer seeing 'Gravity' in a professional theatre (hopefully it will play in revivals or as a re-release), the Blu-ray experience is pretty close and maintains upon repeat viewings. Just find the biggest screen possible, and avoid smartphones or tablets.
This 2D sets comes Highly Recommended (the 3D is Must Own).
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.