In the opening sequence of Gravity, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two astronauts conducting repairs on the Hubble telescope orbiting Earth when disaster strikes, sending her hurtling through space, untethered, floating farther and farther away until she’s just another tiny white light in the cosmos.
The scene neatly sets up all the elements of the remarkable film that follows. There is no sound in space, so when the telescope explodes silently, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to catch up and process what’s happening, because your ears provide no clues. The camera floats weightlessly the way the astronauts do, like magic, occasionally pulling in for a close-up of Bullock’s face, somehow going through the glass of her helmet to show us her eyes, then back out again. And much of the startling sequence unfolds in one single, uninterrupted shot that lasts, what, 10 minutes? Fifteen? Twenty?
Director Alfonso Cuarón isn’t telling.
“I honestly don’t know the exact length,” Cuarón says via telephone from Los Angeles. “We weren’t trying to compete in the Olympics of long shots. We didn’t want the shot to call attention to itself. Otherwise it becomes the goal of the scene — it becomes what I call a ‘Look, Ma, no hands!’ kind of shot. We’re just doing stuff that makes sense for our narrative. Your shots are part of your movie’s language. And the language of this movie is to make you feel like you’re floating up in space with the characters.”
Gravity, which opens Friday, is the culmination of a process that began nearly five years ago when Cuarón’s son Jonás asked him to read a script he had written called Desierto ( Desert), about two illegal immigrants battling the elements while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cuarón, who hadn’t directed a movie since 2006’s dystopian sci-fi adventure Children of Men, was invigorated by the focus and intensity of the screenplay (which Jonás is soon to direct himself, starring Gael Garcia Bernal).
“I really didn’t have that many notes to give him about his script,” Cuarón, 52, says. “Instead, I asked him if he would write something else like it with me. He kind of took me out of a chest, dusted me off and reawakened my desire to make films. We wanted to do something along the lines of Desierto — something that was tense and suspenseful from the start of the film to the end, sprinkled with thematic elements that are conveyed through visual metaphors instead of dialogue. And then we started talking about the metaphorical possibilities of space.”
Although the finished screenplay for Gravity was 90 pages, the movie is refreshingly light on dialogue, most of it consisting of playful banter between Clooney, Bullock and the NASA command center — at least until their situation becomes dire, and then the joking stops.
But in order to make the ambitious movie he envisioned in his head, Cuarón first needed to find out if it was even possible.
“Every film is like a free-fall,” he says. “You just have to jump and hope that your parachute will open. We spent a lot of time developing the technology to shoot this movie, and we didn’t know if it was going to work until deep in the process. It was a big unknown, and we didn’t have a safety net.”