Gravity: Get a load of that huge fucking pale blue dot.
  • Gravity: Get a load of that huge fucking pale blue dot.

From Orson Welles to Christopher Nolan, some of the most influential filmmakers in history have been obsessed with stage magic. I don't think that's an accident; one reason people go to the movies is in the hopes that they will come away astonished. Some of the best movies of all time—2001, The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Citizen Kane—leave us, on first viewing, with the same question a good magic show does: How the hell did they do that?

Drop-jawed gawking doesn't happen much in the multiplexes anymore, because more often than not, we know exactly how they did that: computers. Obviously, they did that with computers. Ask me on my most cynical day, and I'll tell you that the sense of mystery and magic has all but disappeared from moviemaking. But parts of Gravity were so incredibly beautiful that I couldn't do anything but watch with my mouth hanging open, blown away by the amazing spectacle.

Seriously, though: How the hell did they do that? Gravity opens in the soundless void of outer space. A new, somewhat reluctant astronaut named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and a seasoned space walker named Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are repairing a satellite in Earth's orbit. They're just floating in their bulky NASA-supplied space suits, and the camera spins around them, looping and arcing and phasing into and out of their helmets and gliding beneath them as they make small talk to keep a nervous Stone's mind off of throwing up. Something like the first third of the film is made up of one long tracking shot. This is not the sort of thing you do with wires that get wiped out in postproduction. You can't manage this kind of weightlessness by sticking the actors in a water tank. I know it was done with computers, but the artifice looks so real and is sustained so beautifully from every angle that it appears seamless. You want to believe that Cuarón actually flew Clooney and Bullock into outer space in order to achieve Brandoesque realism. (Springing for 3-D is recommended, but people who suffer from motion sickness should be warned that the floatiness can be more than a little nauseating.)

Gravity follows Stone as her shuttle (and contact with Mission Control) is destroyed in a hail of space debris from a Russian satellite demolition gone awry and she's forced to try to find a way to safety.

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