MIAMI — In the opening sequence of “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two astronauts conducting some 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 realize what’s happening, because your ears can’t help you process what’s happening. 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 Cuaron isn’t telling.
“I honestly don’t know the exact length,” Cuaron 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 Cuaron’s son Jonas 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.
Cuaron, 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 Jonas is soon to direct himself, starring Gael Garcia Bernal).
“I really didn’t have that many notes to give him about his script,” Cuaron, 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, Cuaron 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.”
“Gravity’s” development process was so lengthy that several actors circled the project, including Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr., but then had scheduling conflicts. When the filmmakers finally had a concrete starting date, Bullock and Clooney landed the roles, and the parts were slightly rewritten for them.
“After my first conversation with Sandra, it was clear to me that she was the only one who could star in this film,” Cuaron says. “She had read the script and after three hours of talking, she had never once mentioned space or technology. She was only interested in the emotional journey of her character.”
Once Bullock signed on, she began to research the technical aspects of her role. Unlike most sci-fi films set in outer space, “Gravity” tries to adhere to the laws of science whenever possible.
Dr. Catherine “Cady” Coleman, a NASA astronaut who has logged more than 4,000 hours in space, had just watched “The Blind Side” aboard the International Space Station when she received a call from Bullock, who wanted to pick her brain.
“She asked a lot about how you move around up in space,” Coleman says. “How much you would use your hands and feet; the difference between being inside and outside a station; whether you float or fly. We also talked about the feeling of being one of just a few people living in a space station, doing work that is really important and can’t be done from the ground, being alone up there.”
Advancements in computer-generated imagery have made it possible for filmmakers to be able to put on screen whatever they can imagine. But “Gravity” is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in the way it raises the bar on visual effects, using new and existing technology in ways you’ve never seen before in movies. No matter how hard you look, you can’t find the seams.
Combined with the film’s superb 3-D effects, the illusion of being in space is so realistic that you come out of the theater not wanting to know how it was done.
“I’m really glad you’re saying that,” Cuaron says. “I would love for audiences to go see the film and experience it for themselves. Later on, after people have seen it, I’ll be happy to talk about how we did it. But in principle, it’s like going to see David Copperfield perform. You don’t want to know the behind-the-scenes stuff in advance. You want to enjoy the spectacle and the conceptual poetry of the act. And part of the spectacle is not knowing how he did it.”
“Gravity” is being marketed as a sensory experience instead of a science-fiction picture, and for once the advertising is honest. Although there is plenty in the film to chew and digest (including a bound-to-be-controversial dream sequence, and another shot that encapsulates Darwin’s theory of evolution in 60 seconds), the main attraction is the ride — the kind of did-you-see-that? thrills that Cuaron believes are too often lacking in Hollywood pictures.
“I was weaned on movie-movies — stuff like ‘Planet of the Apes’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,’” he says. “Those were really fun, exciting movies, but they were also substantial. They weren’t hollow spectacles. Comic-book movies started out as these great films that liberated these amazing characters from the basements of geeks and unleashed them to the mainstream culture. They were almost subversive.
“But now comic-book movies are becoming the Darth Vader of cinema. You can’t generalize them, but a lot are practically parodies of themselves. The first ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie was a very, very happy surprise. But those are rare. In many ways, I was channeling Buster Keaton when we made ‘Gravity’ — the single through-line story in which there is a lot of humanity and emotion, but everything is conveyed through physical action. We just wanted to put on a really good show.”
And how does he know he succeeded?
“I didn’t, until just a few weeks ago, when we premiered it at Venice!” he says, laughing. “But people there seemed to like it. So we’ll see.”