According to one version of history, Stanley Kubrick faked the 1969 Moon landings. The master of cinema used all the camera trickery and miniature effects he perfected in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the story goes, to fool billions of people into thinking they’d seen Neil Armstrong hop about on the lunar surface, when actually he was in a studio somewhere on Earth.
Although this theory has been comprehensively debunked (there’s plenty of proof that Armstrong and other astronauts really did hop about on the Moon), that such a theory could even be taken seriously in the first place is a testament to the groundbreaking special effects work Stanley Kubrick and Douglas Trumbull brought to A Space Odyssey.
I mention this because the trailer to Alfonso Cuaron’s forthcoming Gravity contains several references to 2001 (more on these later), and shares Kubrick’s dedicated approach to depicting the wonder and danger of space travel. It’s a fabulous trailer for what we’re hoping will be an equally fabulous film. So let’s take a closer look at what its 90-or-so seconds contain…
Gravity‘s trailer is unusually elegant and uncluttered. Where most film promos go for a bludgeoning sensory assault, Gravity gently reels us in. As Arvo Part’s Spiegel im Spiegel plays, beautiful images of Earth fill the screen.
There’s no character development, no introduction of heroes or villains, just a situation: astronauts fixing the panels on a space station, and admiring the extraordinary view. It’s more like an advert for a $250,000 arthouse movie than an $80m sci-fi adventure, but this is precisely why it has such impact.
The trailer’s elegance matches the uncluttered cast and premise. George Clooney stars as seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalsky, who’s on his last rotation at the International Space Station before he returns home for his retirement. Sandra Bullock plays Dr Ryan Stone, an engineer sent out to help perform repairs on her first mission in space.
And as the pair are going about this routine space walk, all hell breaks loose. Precisely 30 seconds into the trailer, their space shuttle is torn apart by something moving impossibly fast. From there, the final minute is a swirling scramble for survival – a situation made all the more terrifying by the stark way director Alfonso Cuaron captures it all.
According to an early draft of the script, the disaster was caused by debris from a passing satellite, though this may have changed in subsequent rewrites. Whatever the cause, the effects are utterly devastating.
Level of detail
We’ve been lucky enough to see some genuinely exciting science fiction films in recent years, but how many of them have tried to depict a situation that seems entirely real? A quick comparison of an early shot from the trailer and a photograph from the real International Space Station shows the effort Cuaron and his filmmakers have gone to in order to make Gravity seem like a plausible situation.
The weight of the space suits, the way small objects behave in a vacuum – they’re all things that, even in this brief little snippet from the film, add to the sense of peril. The last time a movie attempted something this realistic was probably Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, which went to extraordinary lengths to create a believable sense of weightlessness. Howard’s film was nominated for nine Oscars for its visual effects and art direction, among other things – and we wouldn’t be surprised if Gravity earned the same sort of attention.
The sheen may have worn off 3D a long time ago, but we’d wager that Gravity will be one film worth seeing in stereoscope. Aside from the various space vistas, the various shots of flying debris could look stunning in 3D, as could the various first-person shots – such as the one illustrated above, where Bullock reaches desperately for a life-saving handhold. Then again, Gravity could be the sort of film that has some sensitive viewers reaching for their sick bags, with its spinning cameras and lurching astronauts. We’ll probably keep a carrier bag in our pockets, just in case.
About a year ago, word got round that Gravity would feature a 17-minute long opening shot. Cuaron’s no stranger to these kinds of moments of technical wizardry, with his brilliant Children Of Men punctuated by some stunning long takes – one from within a car as it’s assaulted by assassins on motorcycles, another following Clive Owen’s hero as he rushing through a building demolished by machine gun fire.
Although the naturally choppy nature of a trailer means we can’t get much of a flavour of these long shots, it’s almost certain that one of the snippets from its opening 30 seconds will form part of this 17-minute take. Certainly, the way the camera moves smoothly around characters and craft suggests that Cuaron will use the minimum of cuts in Gravity’s first act, which would create an unforgettably hypnotic opening. And given that we never see any shots of the two leads inside a space station or on Earth, could this also mean that the entire film takes place in orbit? That would certainly be original if it did.
Explosions in space
As any scientist will tell you, there’s no sound in space. And in the wake of Gravity’s trailer, some viewers have moaned at the amount of bangs and other noises we hear as the disaster unfolds. It’s possible that these were added to give the trailer more impact to would-be cinemagoers, but I doubt it – they’re almost certainly in the final cut, too.
Once the cinema lights are down, and we’re immersed in the unfolding situation, I suspect that such liberties will become less glaring, particularly if the rest of the film’s as realistic and detailed as the trailer implies. And besides, cinema’s full of conventions that have no basis in reality – the ‘everyone gets a free phone call’ cliche in cop movies, bulletproof car doors in shoot-outs, silenced pistols are literally silent – so maybe we can forgive Cuaron if we hear a few clangs and booms in Gravity.
Ah, Futura – the typeface of kings. Created in 1927, it continues to be the favoured typeface of everyone from IKEA to Volkswagen. Stanley Kubrick was a fan, and he certainly liked it enough to use it in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which may be why it’s turned up in science fiction films and TV shows ever since, including Lost, Warehouse 13, V For Vendetta, and now Gravity. Interestingly, the Apollo 11 mission left a plaque on the Moon, set entirely in Futura – probably best not to tell the conspiracy theorists about it, though.
The tumbling astronaut
Full of drama though Gravity‘s trailer is, it barely tells us anything. Do we ever get to meet the various other astronauts we see briefly before the disaster strikes? At what point does Sandra Bullock’s character change from a beige Russian space suit to an American white one? Is there even a remote possibility that any of them will survive, at least without Lee Majors swooping to the rescue, like in that 1983 space disaster film, Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land?
The trailer concludes with a disquieting final shot of a astronaut tumbling into the void – a final nod to Kubrick, perhaps, and the fate of A Space Odyssey’s luckless traveller, Dr Frank Poole. But who is that floating off to their doom? Bullock? Clooney? Or a member of the cast not credited on IMDb?
All we can say is that Gravity looks stunning. If NASA’s planning to fake any more space missions over the next few years, we’d suggest they approach Cuaron for the job. In fact, we’ll go one step further, and come up with a conspiracy theory of our own: Cuaron didn’t shoot Gravity on Earth with sound stages and computers. Oh no. He shot it in space, for real, using proper space shuttles and billions of dollars in cash. How else do you explain why it’s taken him so long to make it? And have you seen Sandra Bullock or George Clooney in your local supermarket lately? Of course you haven’t. They’re probably still in Earth’s orbit, waiting for Cuaron to shout, “Cut”…
Gravity’s out on the 18th October in the UK.
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