Alfonso Cuaron wanted space to be an unforgiving void in “Gravity,” where astronauts in orbit lose their concept of up and down, and their only frame of reference comes from the reflected light of Earth, spinning 347 miles below them.
A collaboration between Cuaron (“Children of Men,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”) and his screenwriting son, Jonas Cuaron, “Gravity” is a nerve-wracking plunge into the unknown. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. While working on a modification to the Hubble Space Telescope, Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) suddenly find themselves cut off from safety, victims of a sudden debris storm they only knew about seconds before impact.
“Gravity” explores the intense loneliness of space and the horrors of a worst-case scenario in orbit. Alfonso Cuaron's desire was to make it real for viewers. His visual approach with “Gravity” attempts to simulate the disorientation and physics of a zero-gravity environment. Gaining momentum and hitting the right target at any cost becomes the only option for Stone and Kowalski as they try to save themselves from being lost in space. As a result, viewers will feel fully immersed in the 3-D film, spinning and hurtling with the two astronauts.
The director said that getting rid of up, down, left and right made “Gravity” more realistic, but during a press conference in Los Angeles, Cuaron said the prospect of getting rid of any discernible X/Y axis gave his computer animators fits.
“That was exactly the biggest challenge early on,” Cuaron said. “I mean, even before getting into the technical solutions, I would bring things from the standpoint of gravity, horizon and weight. It was a whole learning curve, because it is completely counterintuitive.
“The way you start the choreography is with animations,” he said. “The problem is that graphics people, people who draw, animators ... they learn to draw based on horizon and weight, and it was a big, big learning curve, with experts coming to explain the physics of zero-G. With the physics of space, we wanted to be super-accurate.”
On the human level, Oscar winner Bullock said that her role in “Gravity” presented physical challenges, but also emotional rewards.
“You had to retrain your body from the neck down to react and move as though it was in zero-G,” Bullock said. “Everything that your body reacts to with a push or a pull on the ground is completely different than it is in zero-G. So to make that second nature just took training and weeks of repetition, then syncing it with Alfonso's camera.”
While Clooney plays a pivotal role, much of the film's action centers on how Stone gropes her way through the expanse of orbital space, trying to find any viable escape plan.
Bullock said female roles of this magnitude are rare, but given her recent success with Melissa McCarthy in “The Heat,” she said films centered on women are becoming more common.
“I was always longing to do, emotionally and physically, what my male counterparts always got to do,” she said. “I always felt envious every time I saw a movie that I was in awe of and it was usually a male lead.
“In the last couple of years, things have shifted. The fact that Jonas and Alfonso wrote this specifically as a woman — it wasn't an afterthought — is an integral part of the story. It's revolutionary. The fact that a studio — on blind faith — would fund something as unknown as this, is revolutionary.”
And yet, as revolutionary as “Gravity” looks and feels, Cuaron said that every visual frame, every sound, every movement is in the service of telling the story.
“Forget about space,” he said. “This is a film about a woman drifting into the void, a woman who is a victim of her own inertia. But even as she is despairing ... there is that something that is what makes the species keep on going. It is the surge of life.”
Travel and accommodations provided by Warner Bros.