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Doctoral theses will be penned on the breath-catchingly realistic, gorgeously choreographed, entirely mesmerizing opening that director Alfonso Cuaron has conjured for Gravity — both how the scene was managed and how it works on a viewer's psyche.
I'll leave the technical stuff to grad students; for now let's just call the shot immersive in a way that cinema rarely manages to be. For more than 13 minutes, without a cut or edit — yes, I know this was digitally managed, not done in a single go — Cuaron sends his camera swooping in graceful arcs around an orbiting repair crew.
They're astronauts working on the Hubble Space Telescope high above the Earth, their shuttle idled nearby, disaster imminent though they won't know that until it's upon them.
We first see the crew and their spacecraft as a tiny dot on the edge of a majestic, screen-filling planet, their isolation and sheer cosmic puniness their most salient feature. The camera floats toward them, or perhaps they toward it, as we hear them chattering faintly in staticky NASA-speak.
Soon we're close enough to discern who's who — George Clooney's veteran space walker cracking wise as he sails above, around and past Sandra Bullock's newbie, who's struggling gamely with circuits, wiring, bolts (one floats straight out into the auditorium) and a queasy stomach.
And as we take in the dazzling, star-backed blue-and-white planet, and register the physics of space-walking — how much force is required to move from one Hubble strut to another, what happens when an electronic panel floats free and out of reach — Mission Control chimes in occasionally (the voice is Apollo 13's Ed Harris, mischievously enough) with words of encouragement.
And then with alarm. A Russian satellite has exploded, sending shards of potentially lethal space debris their way — debris that becomes visible in the background — remember there still has not been a single "edit" — just before it rips into the Hubble, and the shuttle, and all those struts and panels, sending them and the astronauts and all of us reeling.
Bullock, whose anxiety about being outside an enclosed capsule is evident even when she's moored to the equipment she's repairing, is sent spinning free, head-over-heels into inky blackness. The camera joins her in her point of view — the stars are streaks now — and we can see her breath coming so rapidly it fogs her vision. Her disorientation is our disorientation, even as Clooney tries to get her to focus and tell him her position so he can try to find her.
Now, what I don't know about how the brain processes visual information fills volumes, but I'm going to guess that 13 minutes with nary a cut or visual cue to remind you that you're in a movie theater allows you to ... well, not forget that fact, exactly, but perhaps subliminally to at least discount it. We've all become familiar enough with conventional film grammar that we barely register shifts from one point of view to another, or from medium shot to close-up, even though that's not how we experience the real world. We've learned to ignore and absorb these visual cues because they're such useful storytelling tools.
Until some ambitious doctoral candidate establishes this definitively, it'll just have to be a wild guess on my part, but I'm going to posit that the absence of those cues affects the experience of viewing Gravity. Real life is a continuous shot, after all, not unlike the one Cuaron has immersed us in for 13 minutes. And if there's nothing signaling to your brain that you're not really with the folks you've been listening to and gliding near, well — the suggestion that you are actually floating in orbit yourself has got to be at least a little more persuasive than usual.
Enough so, anyway, that you may find yourself dodging what's presumably digital debris as it flies at your head, quite as if it were the real thing. I can only acknowledge that I did just that while watching the film in 3-D IMAX, from a row close enough that the image filled my peripheral vision. And that everyone around me seemed to be doing the same thing.
It would be nice, now that I've dispatched with that astounding opening, if there were a way to similarly dodge some of the script's less felicitous notions. Cuaron and his son Jonas have felt the need not just to come up with ways to keep the characters talking — there's even a mildly sneery reference to NPR at one point — but to brush in backstory and motivation, quite as if the peril of being isolated in space with a limited supply of oxygen weren't sufficient rationale for the characters' actions.
I've no doubt the filmmakers have good reasons for this — that we're meant to see Bullock curled in a fetal position as signaling a moment of rebirth, that spiritual questions might reasonably occur to someone working through grief while surrounded by the cosmic infinity of space.
But frankly, none of that made me feel half as awestruck as did the mastery of form and the brilliance of execution that, it seems to me, is really what Gravity is about. (Recommended)