When I saw Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” in 2011, I intentionally did not see the 3-D version. My goal was to view this picture on its own merits, without the distraction of 3-D gimmickry. There were a few moments when various items or people jumped toward the camera when I found myself lamenting the fact that those brief scenes were inserted merely for the novelty of 3-D. On the whole, I loved “Hugo,” and wish Scorsese (of all great directors) would not have toyed with the technology du jour.
Now it’s 2013, and another “serious” 3-D picture is out. Again, I saw “Gravity” in standard two-dimensional form, hoping to wean more depth from the script and the acting than had I subjected myself to the overpowering presence of 3-D. This time, for the first time in my life, I felt like I was missing something – like I should have seen the 3-D version. The special effects were impressive, but I found myself wanting more. In 3-D, it would have felt as though I were floating through outer space with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
If you haven’t heard, “Gravity” is about two astronauts, the veteran Matt Kowalski, played by Clooney, and the newbie, Dr. Ryan Stone, played by Bullock, whose space shuttle is bombarded by space debris during a spacewalk. After their shuttle is destroyed, they use their limited thruster pack power to make their way to the International Space Station, itself a victim of the space debris onslaught. This is a film about survival, in a setting in which survival is next to impossible unless all equipment is functioning properly.
“Gravity” is chock full of edge-of-your-seat thrills, but I was most impressed with the quiet, introspective, middle third of the picture. Sandra Bullock turns in another Oscar-worthy performance in a role in which her character is the only one on screen for most of 90 minutes. She keeps her sanity, under very trying circumstances, by talking to herself – not only about the minutia of astronaut survival, but about her own mortality. While I don’t think “Gravity” is as strong a Best Picture contender as some other critics, I do think Sandra Bullock continues to establish herself as one of our greatest actresses every time I see her. Even in the 3-D version, I’m guessing she’s the No. 1 reason to see “Gravity.”
I must address a couple cinematic issues I’d read about prior to viewing “Gravity.” First, I never like to see space exploration films compared to Stanley Kubrick’s landmark 1968 picture, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Why? Because “2001” is the greatest science fiction film ever made, and probably always will be. If I had not read about the comparison of “Gravity” to “2001,” I never would have made the connection. Yes, each film is a triumph of special effects. Yes, neither film is dependent upon its special effects. But that’s where any comparison ceases. “Gravity” is a story about surviving a terrible accident in outer space; “2001” is a film about mankind and its development of technology and weaponry over the course of many centuries. See the comparison? No? Neither do I. Truth be told, I left the theatre thinking how great it would have been if Stanley Kubrick had made a 3-D version of “2001.” There’s actually one scene in the International Space Station where Bullock removes her astronaut suit. She’s floating in zero gravity in her underwear, and I had a flashback to Jane Fonda in “Barbarella.” The point is “Gravity” has no more to do with “2001” than it does “Barbarella.”
I’d also like to point out that the opening sequence features one of the longest continuous tracking shots in cinema history. It’s so long, I lost track of when it ended, but it must last at least 10 minutes. As I was watching the introductory spacewalk scenes, including the space debris accident, I realized the long tracking shot was not so much Director Alfonso Cuaron showing off his talent, but it exists to help viewers understand the lack of gravity in outer space. As the camera moves around the space shuttle and the spacewalking astronauts, we’re not sure which way is up, down, north, or south. The point is that it doesn’t matter. To me, Cuaron’s most impressive cinematic technique is sliding his moveable camera into Sandra Bullock’s helmet so that we see outer space through her eyes. He does this several times during “Gravity,” and it impressed me every time.
“Gravity” is worth seeing, and I swallow as I say this, but please see the 3-D version. I don’t agree that “Gravity” is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If we agree that “2001” is the best science fiction film ever made, I’ll gladly put “Gravity” in that second tier, along with Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” and Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.” I expect to see Sandra Bullock’s name on this year’s Best Actress nominees.