Posted in Film

The Sandra Bullock Files #45: Gravity (2013)


The Sandra Bullock Files is a series that looks at the films of Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, all the way from her debut in 1987, to her two major 2018 releases, Ocean’s Eight and Bird Box.

Ever since she broke through in 1994 with her charismatic performance in the action extravaganza Speed, Sandra Bullock has been working steadily in films, both good and bad. From 1995 to 2008 she had a string of hits — While You Were Sleeping, A Time to Kill, Miss Congeniality — as well as a boatload of bombs — Two if By Sea, Forces of Nature, Gun Shy. She has been a beloved actress among film fans for two decades, but after the critical and financial failure of her suspense thriller Premonition in 2007, it seemed like she would never break through her seemingly long-lasting trend of making mediocre films. But two films in 2009 changed everything. While she did appear that year in All About Steve, arguably her worst film ever, she also starred in The Proposal and The Blind Side, two smash hits that re-instated her A-list status and garnered her not just monetary success but critical cred and major awards, including the Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and Academy Award for The Blind Side.

After Sandra enjoyed such a spectacular year, one might assume there was nowhere left for her to go but down. The next three years offered little output from her, with only a brief turn in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and the occasional film premiere appearance. However, 2013 marked something impressive for Sandra: her most astonishing year yet, both financially and critically. Think her PG-13-rated romantic comedy The Proposal earning $163 million nationwide was a fluke? Consider her 2013 summer comedy The Heat, co-starring Melissa McCarthy, which earned $159 million — with an R rating, which precludes most teenagers and kids from buying tickets. Think The Blind Side making $255 million nationwide was impossible for Sandra to ever beat? That film made headlines in early 2010 for making the most money in history with only a sole female name above the poster.

Still, remarkably, her other 2013 film Gravity beat her all-time record. Opening with an astonishing $55 million, the largest sum a film has ever made on a weekend in October (until Venom and Halloween in 2018), Gravity went on in the next two months to become one of the biggest smash hits of the year, topping out at $273 million nationwide and a whopping 712 million worldwide. Many expect a summer action movie like The Avengers and Iron Man 3 to break box office records, but few assumed Gravity, with its fall release date and quieter marketing campaign, would reach such similar heights in its popularity. The film is, after all, a drama more than it is a thriller, one that features only one person on screen for the majority of its running time. Gravity is a deeply intimate, emotionally rewarding film experience, and the rare instance of a great motion picture that has managed to appeal to everyone — film buffs, casual moviegoers, grandparents, kids. It has visionary special effects, a fun supporting turn by George Clooney, and a moving story that creeps up on the viewer as the film reaches its stunning climax. Best of all, it features a stunning performance by Sandra that bests anything she has ever done on screen, including Crash, Infamous, and The Blind Side.

Gravity was in the works for more than five years. Alfonso Cuaron, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his generation, wanted to make a movie set in space. The director of such terrific and diverse films as A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien wanted to step outside his comfort zone and do something different. While his 2006 film Children of Men was not a major moneymaker, its overwhelming critical praise and handful of Academy Award nominations gave him enough clout to begin the process on his next motion picture. Cuaron has said that Gravity was the biggest miscalculation of his entire career, in that he had no idea how long it would take to get his vision to the screen. When he approached his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki about this project, Cuaron said that the process could be completed relatively quickly — a year, he assumed — considering that it was essentially a two-character piece with little dialogue. Gravity, however, took much longer, both to get off the ground and to become realized, with a considerable amount of time devoted to figuring out how the screenplay could be translated to the screen. Cuaron met with major filmmakers who had worked on complicated special effects films before, like James Cameron, the maverick director of Avatar, who told Cuaron flat out that the technology to make Gravity was at least five more years away. Cuaron and his crew wouldn’t take no for answer, though, and after much research and determination, they ended up inventing brand new technology just to get the film made.

As the team behind Gravity started experimenting with these mind-blowing technologies, Cuaron met with potential actors. Angelina Jolie was the first to be cast as Dr. Ryan Stone, but she dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, and Cuaron went on to consider Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, and Scarlett Johansson. The one who proved to be the best choice for the role, as it turned out, was Sandra, and he approached her at her home in Texas, during the summer of 2010. She was hesitant to take the role at first, having endured a very public break-up with her former husband Jesse James, and taking care of a newly adopted child Louis at home. Sandra was in awe of Cuaron’s work, however, and had been hoping for an opportunity to work with him. She eventually signed on, making Gravity one of her first two projects following her Oscar win for The Blind Side. Early in pre-production, Robert Downey Jr. was attached to the role of Matt Kowalski, the only other major character in the film, but he eventually dropped out, too, for undisclosed reasons, and George Clooney came on board the project, marking the first time that Sandra and Clooney — close friends since they were struggling actors in the late 1980s — finally worked together in a movie.

Soon after Sandra wrapped her small part in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, she flew to London and began work prepping for Gravity. To achieve all that was needed of her on this unusual production, Sandra spent months training with two fitness instructors who specifically aimed to strengthen her core. During the production, she spent long hours hanging on wires, and she needed to be in tremendous shape to physically endure the trying and claustrophobic shoot. It was the most demanding filming experience of her career, with Sandra at times having to spend up to ten hours a day stuck inside a tiny nine-by-nine light box on a bare soundstage all alone, acting off nobody, and having little human interaction. Clooney was on set for a small part of the shoot, and before and after his scenes were filmed, the Gravity production was essentially a one-woman show.

After Sandra wrapped her work on the film, she went on to star in The Heat with Melissa McCarthy, while the technical wizards behind Gravity spent more than two years in post bringing Cuaron’s vision to life. It was one of those hot projects everyone in Hollywood knew about, but who few knew of any concrete details. The first release date set for the film was November 2012, but Gravity was ultimately delayed due to the extensive post-production work that needed to be completed, and the film was ultimately pushed back to October 4, 2013. Gravity finally had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival at the end of August, and instantly received unanimous praise from critics, with many calling the film a landmark in cinema, as well as a tremendous showcase for its main star. While it may have taken Cuaron multiple years to get the film made, his hard work paid off, with audiences all over the world falling in love with this remarkable achievement.

There have been spectacular opening shots in films over the years — the first few minutes of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil come to mind — but the thirteen-minute shot that kicks Gravity into high gear might be the most astonishing of all time. The film opens simply, cutting to a quiet and awe-inspiring shot of planet Earth. There is no music, no dialogue. Director Cuaron draws the viewer into the movie slowly, allowing him time to situate himself in a setting very few people are familiar with. Clooney’s voice is soon heard, and when he and Sandra finally appear on-screen, one is completely immersed in the amazing oasis of outer space. The actors talk for a few minutes — telling jokes, voicing frustrations, uttering the briefest accounts of their lives — and the viewer watches in awe as the camera spins around the characters and gives alternating angles of people floating hundreds of miles above Earth. But then, the unthinkable happens — debris from a destroyed Russian satellite zooms straight toward the space shuttle and collides with such ferocity that Ryan gets ejected from her spot and starts flipping into the void of space. All of these events play out in real time, in one unbroken shot, a seamless piece of pure cinema that is a work of art all its own.

Once the first harrowing action scene reaches its climax, the rest of the film plays out as an intense survival story, with Ryan doing all she can to return to Earth. The second half of the movie finds Ryan working all by her lonesome, overcoming one potentially fatal obstacle after another, in order to survive. Cuaron has said that one of his influences in making Gravity was the first major work by Steven Spielberg — Duel, the 1971 TV movie about an ordinary man who is pursued by a mad trucker. Spielberg’s film doesn’t let up in the suspense and tension throughout its brief ninety-minute running time, and neither does Gravity. The scene of Ryan and Matt trying to grab onto the shuttle, for instance, offers no break from the kind of hold-your-breath excitement that one rarely experiences in modern movies, and a later scene involving a second run-in with the satellite debris is so well realized that it is hard to not have a strong physical reaction to what is playing out on the screen.

How Gravity differs from so many other action films set in space is that it has a heartbreaking, intimate story at its core, one that slowly but assuredly works its power over the viewer. There is not a lot of backstory in Gravity. The viewer is introduced at the beginning to two characters who he comes to know little about, until about thirty minutes in, when he learns that one reason Ryan accepted the mission into space is that she has endured an unthinkable loss in her life. She tells Matt that she had a daughter, a precious little girl with brown hair who died in a tragic accident at her elementary school. One would argue that there is nothing worse for a parent than to bury his or her own child, and Ryan has dealt with her own pain by removing herself from the world — literally. When she’s suddenly the last survivor of her mission, and has to go to extreme lengths to stay alive, she is faced with the ultimate question: why go on living when there’s nothing left to live for?

At one point in the movie, Ryan hits a stumbling block, when her shuttle shuts down and loses all its fuel. She immediately gives up, turns down the oxygen, and prepares herself for death. Up until this point, the film has worked as an exciting suspense thriller, with enough beauty in its impeccable visuals to guarantee unanimous praise. It is in this long, quiet scene, however, that Gravity moves into truly special territory. The camera lingers on Ryan’s face, as she starts to cry, realizing she is moments away from fading, never to come back. It is a raw, intimate moment rarely seen in a modern American blockbuster. Most directors would cut away, move to the next scene, do his best to not make the audience feel even remotely uncomfortable. Cuaron is gutsier than the average director, however, because he understands that the viewer has spent an hour with this character, rooting her on, and hoping she makes it back to Earth. The viewer is so invested in her plight that he wants to share this downbeat moment with her, still with the hope that she will persevere and not give up so easily.

Ryan’s determination to stay alive brings the film to a moving and satisfying conclusion. Cuaron doesn’t allow for much sentimentality in the movie, but he does give Ryan a tender monologue, where she talks to the invisible Matt about when he will meet her little girl. This scene, more than any other in the film, had the possibility of playing maudlin, but Sandra underplays it, not going overboard with the tears or any look-at-me kind of emotion. All it takes is one brief hesitation at the end of the monologue, when she looks up at the shuttle ceiling and takes a deep breath, to tell everything the viewer needs to know about her state of mind. As she hurtles in a small burning pod toward Earth, not knowing if she has a chance to survive, she screams in terrified delight that whether she burns up in the next few minutes or makes it to safety, it has been one hell of a ride. The last shot of the movie, another long take that is a perfect bookend to the first shot of the film, shows Ryan swim to the shore and try, with humorous difficulty, to stand up, and finally surrender herself to — what else — gravity.

In a 2013 interview, James Cameron said how much he loved Gravity, that he thought it was the best space film ever made. Cameron would know — as the director of Aliens and Avatar, he has been to space before. Movies set in space are relatively few and far between, with only two to three significant films in this science fiction subgenre released each year. The first space motion picture ever made was A Trip to the Moon, directed by George Melies and released in 1902, and over the decades many influential films followed, like The Day the Earth Stood Still, Star Wars, Alien, and Contact. More recent examples of this subgenre of science fiction films include the latest Star Trek films, as well as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. So many of these films, however, don’t take outer space seriously, and instead treat it like a fantasy world, with monsters and aliens forever running amok. The space film closest in tone and grandeur to Gravity is Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is dead serious in tone, and more interested in making audiences think than it is in blowing up a distant planet. The film offered audiences not only some of the most stunning visual effects ever seen on screen up to that point, but also the first truly awesome look at space, and not until Gravity had moviegoers been treated to a spectacle that can match it.

One of the most impressive achievements of Gravity is its focus on a female main character for the majority of its running time. Cuaron was pressured by Warner Bros. to make the main character a man, as many studio executives still think to this day that audiences won’t go to a big blockbuster movie if a woman is leading the show. Cuaron, to his credit, never wavered from his vision, and stuck to his guns about hiring an actress for the pivotal central role of Dr. Ryan Stone. While it is not common for women to headline big-budget action thrillers, a few select actresses have paved the way for Sandra’s role in Gravity. The most obvious influence is Sigourney Weaver, Sandra’s Infamous co-star, who made huge strides for women in action cinema when she outlived all the men and became the heroine of 1979’s Alien. A riveting space film in its own right, as quiet in its many suspenseful moments the same way Gravity is, Alien offered Weaver the chance to prove that women can hold their own in big-budgeted movies the same way that men can. Her character of Ellen Ripley is witty and intelligent, and quick thinking in the face of adversity, just like Dr. Ryan Stone is in Gravity. Weaver followed her tremendous work in that Ridley Scott classic by reprising the role in three sequels, but despite the occasional action movie female lead — Geena Davis headlined 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight, and faced scrutiny when the film bombed hard at the box office — men typically drive the genre. For a major studio film like Gravity to feature not just a female in the lead role but a woman in her late forties, particularly in today’s teen-driven marketplace, is an important step in the right direction; hopefully the film’s massive box office success should point studio executives to offering roles like this to more women in the future.

Alfonso Cuaron has been working his whole impressive career toward Gravity, and with his latest film he has catapulted himself into the realm of the top three filmmakers working in the medium today. He started quietly in the 1990s, helming film versions of two classic novels, A Little Princess and Great Expectations. He impressed audiences with his low-budget Spanish road trip movie, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and stumped many when he was chosen over many A-listers to helm the third Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. While the darker, more immersive vision he brought to the franchise won him fans, it was his phenomenal work on his 2006 dystopian drama Children of Men that cemented his status as a true auteur. The story of a future society where women can no longer bare children, Children of Men introduced his famous long takes, and catapulted Cuaron to legendary status.

Gravity, remarkably, is an even greater achievement, the kind of film so few directors would have had the patience, or the determination, or the imagination, to ever make. He succeeded in creating a film that is unlike anything that’s come before; while movies have taken us to space time and time again throughout the medium’s history, nothing has ever demonstrated the true beauty of space quite like Gravity. He also succeeded in telling a moving, intimate story about a woman in her forties who has lost everything, and who finds the will to live even in the most trying of circumstances. The film works as a tense thriller, an emotional drama, an action blockbuster, and a bravura one-woman survival tale. That Cuaron worked on it tirelessly, day and night, for nearly five years, also shows the determination he has to get his films as perfect as possible. The film is a piece of pure artistic genius, and while Sandra and the cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also deserve kudos for their fantastic work, Gravity begins and ends with the great Alfonso Cuaron.

Aside from some voice-work at the beginning of the film by Ed Harris, the star of two famous space films The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, Gravity features only two performances, and while the film belongs to Sandra, Clooney is equally impressive in his brief but essential role. Matt is a jokester, giving the film its only sources of comic relief when he tells humorous stories from his past, right before the first wave of satellite debris hits the station. With so much action and intensity throughout, Gravity might have been too much of a downer without at least some comedy woven into the narrative, and Clooney provides just the right number of laughs in a few key moments to give the audience a much needed relief from the tension. His humor also adds to the emotion of the movie, because after so much of his commentary lightens up what is otherwise a scary circumstance, he turns serious in a moment of self-sacrifice. If the character hadn’t been so personable before, this scene of Gravity might not have had the power that it does. His sweet, self-mocking personality makes the awesome spectacle more easily accessible in the beginning, and his chemistry with Sandra is natural throughout the brief running time they share together. The role of Matt is pivotal to the success of the movie, and no one could have inhabited this role better than Clooney.

Sandra, however, is the star, and she is a revelation in Gravity. America’s sweetheart for so many years, the lead actress in so many terrific comedies and dramas over the last two decades, she is loved the world over — and still, nobody could have been prepared for her mesmerizing, physically demanding, emotionally rich tour-de-force of a performance she delivers in this film. So much of Gravity depends on visual effects, and another actress could have gotten lost somewhere behind all that beautiful imagery. Even when the viewer can only see her face inside a space suit for the first thirty minutes, her presence is felt in each second of screen time. The quiet despair she displays is evident from her first shot on screen, when she is focused on the technical job she has at hand. When the debris hits, she panics and screams, like any normal person would do, but when she makes it back to the shuttle and finds herself the sole survivor, Sandra’s rarely utilized physicality comes into play. In the film’s most striking shot of all, Ryan enters the shuttle, takes off her heavy suit, and curls up into a fetal position, in mid-air, signifying a moment of rebirth. From this point on, no one is helping her, and she needs to fend for herself, like a newborn child. What follows are many scenes of physical tasks and problems to solve, as she slowly realizes she might not survive the strenuous ordeal. The up-and-down emotions her character goes through would be a lot for an actress to deal with in a film that takes place down on Earth, let alone in zero gravity, and Sandra is more than up to the task. She has to not only convey everything her character is thinking and feeling at all times, but also deal with the tremendously demanding physical side of the role. That such a moving performance broke through under these circumstances is some minor miracle. Later nominated for her second Best Actress Oscar at the 86th Annual Academy Awards, Sandra is the best she has ever been, in this, the film of her career.

Gravity is proof that studio filmmaking in the new millennium still has the capability to be strong and inventive, and promote the imagination. While the television medium has enjoyed a new golden age over the last ten years, some have argued that major motion pictures have been declining in quality, especially studio blockbusters, which are often dumbed down, and aimed at kids and teenagers, to make the highest profit possible. Gravity, however, stands out as a true anomaly; it is a big-budget studio film made with love and artistry, that was geared toward an adult audience, that allows for a woman in her late forties to command the screen all by herself, and that promotes ideas over explosions. Gravity is an astonishing film, an instant classic, and it offered fans of Sandra, after twenty long years, a reason to celebrate.

Best Scene: Sandra starts weeping when she realizes she’s about to die.

Best Line: “Either way, it’s going to be one hell of a ride.”

Fun Facts

Gravity won seven Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Cinematography, and Best Editing. It lost Best Picture to 12 Years a Slave, and Sandra lost Best Actress to Cate Blanchett, for Blue Jasmine.

Aningaaq, the man Sandra talks to over the shortwave radio, is the main character of the companion short film Aningaaq, directed by Jonas Cuaron, which shows the other side of the conversation.

For research, Sandra talked to Astronaut Cady Coleman about life in space.

Because of Cuaron’s lengthy takes, Sandra had to memorize long combinations of precise movements to hit her marks at different points in the shot, as well as coordinate her own moves with those of the wire rig attached to her and the camera.

Along with 12 Years a Slave, Gravity is the first film in history to tie for Best Picture at the Producers Guild Awards.

While filming the underwater scene, Cuaron held his breath along with Sandra to make sure he wasn’t asking too much of his leading lady. He soon found that he couldn’t match her lung power.

The film was shot on digital cameras. However, the last scene of the movie was filmed in sixty-five millimeter, in order to give a hyper-reality look.

With more than forty feature films behind her, Gravity is Sandra’s most successful motion picture to date.

2 thoughts on “The Sandra Bullock Files #45: Gravity (2013)

  1. So many people call Gravity overrated–but I gotta say, I was glad I saw it in the theater (2D, 3D might’ve made me sick), because it was probably the best emotional ride I’d had in the theater since Apollo 13 (space buff, too). I left the theater grinning from ear to ear, still shaking with emotion, because the visuals and the music were perfect, and it made your soul want to shout (or maybe just mine). I downloaded the soundtrack that afternoon. It was an absorbing experience, and one of the reasons I go to the theater…I want to get sucked into the story and the world in front of me, and this movie worked. I still love the film, definitely in my top 10 list.

    1. I’m so glad you feel this way!! I’m always bewildered when someone tells me it was overrated or awful. I freakin’ love that movie so much!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s