Defining Gravity.

Film Having stayed away for well over six months, I went to the cinema twice this week, on Monday for Thor: The Dark World (because keeping spoiler free within the Marvel franchise superstructure is a pain in the all the, um, diodes down my left side) and on the Friday to Gravity, which is the best film of the year and, outside of the business model of the MARVELverse at least, the most important film so-far this decade.

In her typically detailed and spoilery analysis Kirsten Thompson rates it higher than both 2001 and Napoléon and although I haven't seen the latter, I could help her with an argument for it, at least in terms of pure spectacle, eclipsing the former (though to be fair I've always prefered 2010 anyway). Unlike There Will Be Blood, which seemed at the time like it could herald in a new epoch until no one bothered to go see it, but like Inception, it's an avant garde art house film that's mainstream enough to capture the mass audience which has bothered to go and see and see again in their droves.

Unable to watch 3D films satisfactorily, I sought out a 2D showing and hugged myself for much of the duration between laughing along with the Clooney and crying along with Sandy.  These are not spoilers by the way, at least not if you've seen the trailer.  Not even the crunchy popcorn muncher who came and sat directly behind me could distract me too much, though for people who've been to see it already, I think you can guess the moments when I was less than tolerant.

What's bloody remarkable is that the film almost didn't get made and be this good.  The whole thing nearly fell through and indeed the release date of the film slipped.  As Thompson mentions in her post, the studio bore down on Cuaron to give the work more traditional character beats, break the structure of the thing, make it even more mainstream in all the ways that destroyed Robert Zemeckis's Castaway.

I've actually followed its production over the past few years on /Film and a glance through their archive shows some of the twists and turns the film went through before, during and after production, or at least how they aggregated the possible twists and turns as reported across the web,  which began with a ... well let's have a look shall we? Note there are spoilers from the start, though it's fair to say some of the details are a bit wonky.

Thursday, February 25th, 2010 
Wanted 2 Not Happening; Angelina Jolie to Star in Alfonso Cuarón’s Space Thriller Gravity
"According to Vulture, Jolie will play the sole surviving human member of a space mission, desperately trying to return home to Earth. She will be the only actor on screen for most of the movie. Oh, and did I mention that Jolie isn’t alone on the ship? Jolie will also be playing her daughter."

Which sounds weirder than turned out and I can't even see how this would work. But yes, the project began as a Jolie vehicle.  Which would have been fine, but might not have been as distinctive a work as it is now with Bullock in the lead role.  We'll return to this later.

Saturday, February 27th, 2010
Angelina Jolie Not Doing Cuaron’s Gravity After All?
"EW reports that Jolie’s reps say the actress “passed on doing Gravity at Warner Bros.” Furthermore, the site says that it cannot confirm whether or not the film is even really set up at WB right now. Which is interesting. Dying to know more about this one, and hope that it can come together somewhere."

The film was released by Warner Bros in the end. This post is just the sort of reason why I've tended to stop reading film blogs in their entirety -- there's plenty of rumour posted (or as is the case here reposted) as fact which is then turned around.

Sunday, March 14th, 2010
Robert Downey Jr. in talks for Alfonso Cuarón’s 3D Space Thriller Gravity
"now Mike Fleming has learned that Robert Downey Jr. is in talks to star in the film instead of Jolie."

Mike Fleming was at Dateline. In this version of the story, it's a space station not a space shuttle.

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity Will Be 60% CGI, Opening Shot is Over 20 Minutes Long
"Starring Robert Downey Junior, the film is a contemporary survival thriller that follows a woman as she attempts to make her way back to earth after a satellite crash sets off a chain reaction of further crashes. Because it’s set in space, most shots require every element to float in zero-gravity."

The detail of this post is scavenged from The Playlist. At this point then, Downey Jr's attached but it doesn't have a female lead. The space station is still there but otherwise the post title is entirely what's now on screen.

Wednesday, June 16th, 2010
Will Louis Leterrier Direct Insane-Sounding Sci-Fi Thriller ‘Gravity’?
"Pajiba has the news, explaining that the film is about ” a father who has to search for his lost child as the world stops spinning and Earth begins to lose its gravity.” This is an in-development situation, so we’re not likely to hear anything too firm about it yet, and when we do hear more, in all likelihood the film will have a different title. The project is with Mark Gordon Productions and Universal, with George Nolfi (The Adjustment Bureau) reportedly producing."

Pure link bait. It's a different film called Gravity. Did this get made? Leterrier instead directed the perplexingly almost good Now You See Me (which looks like it might be getting a sequel). Either way, Cuaron is still on his own project.

Tuesday, August 10th
Will Blake Lively or Scarlett Johansson Star in Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’?
"Johansson pepared to sign on to David O. Russell’s Old St. Louis, which seemed to put her commitment to Gravity in doubt. Now THR says that Gravity probably won’t shoot until early next year, and that Cuaron tested both actresses in the past couple weeks. A decision between them is expected “within the next week or two.” There’s a suggestion that WB is interested in Lively, thanks to her work for the studio in The Town and Green Lantern."

The post also says Marion Cotillard tested for it and the synopsis now includes mention of repairs on Hubble and uses Cast Away as the relatable project. What's interesting about all this casting mayhem is that apparently much younger actresses were envisioned for the Bullock role and of varying statuses and because of the nature of the project, casting any of them would have put a different complexion on the end result with Cotillard indicating something even more art house, and Lively (really?) and Johansson skewing closer to Hollywood.

Wednesday, September 1st, 2010
Angelina Jolie Again Declines to Star in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’; Project Now in Jeopardy?
"Deadline says that after Jolie first said no, Warner Bros. and Alfonso Cuarón tested and met with a wide range of actresses including Sandra Bullock, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, Naomi Watts, Carey Mulligan, Scarlett Johansson, Sienna Miller, Abbie Cornish, Rebecca Hall, Olivia Wilde, and Blake Lively. In other words: just about everyone of a certain age who has some sort of a widely recognizable name, and several who don’t."

See my comments for the previous post. The film would have been remarkably different in texture with each of these actresses in the central role. Note it's the first mention for Bullock. Was the film really in jeopardy or was that the /film writer's hyperbole? It is possible. Films can fall apart, even massive, big budget films, if a "star" isn't attached, but there's very few actresses on that list who could really sell the film in the way that Sandy has, bless her.

Thursday, September 2nd, 2010
Story Details Revealed in Script Review of Early Draft of Alfanso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’
"The other criticism at this point, which goes along with the thin characterization of Ryan, is that the action is repetitive and unleavened by any humor. But if the technological ambition that is rumored for the film turns out to be true, this could still be a showstopper. And remember, again, that this draft is nearly a year old and considerable work has been done to the script since then. So don’t take many of these details as gospel, but rather as indicators of where the film could be going."

I hate these "script reviews", hate them, hate them, hate them. The script isn't the film and as we've seen now and as Thompson outlines in the post linked way above, the characterisation is purposefully full of grace notes because it's really not needed, we identify with both her and Clooney because they're playing versions of the kinds of characters they've always played in much the same way as used to happen in the Irwin Allen disaster films and actually in hyperlink films were there simply isn't the time for any great depth. The mention of a lack of humour's bemusing because actually there's plenty of humour, especially in the Clooney scenes, though often quite bittersweet.

Monday, September 6th, 2010
Natalie Portman Offered Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’
"Now Risky Business has learned that Natalie Portman has been offered the role, as the studio approved the actress without requiring a screen test in the wake of the early Black Swan reviews. According to the report, Portman is expected to read the latest version of the script this week and make her decision shortly."

Risky Business is another blog by the way. Instead Black Swan was followed by the romcom No Strings Attached which was destroyed by the funnier on the same theme Friends With Benefits, the rubbish Your Highness (in which Portman seemed to be acting in a different film ala Emily Mortimer in Scream 3) and the Thors. Which just shows what film careers can be like. We'll return to that shortly.

Sunday, September 12th, 2010
Sandra Bullock is WB’s Latest Rumored Lead Choice for Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’
"With the choice of lead role for Alfonso Cuarón‘s ‘Castaway in space’ film Gravity hinging to a great degree on a bankability index, it’s something of a surprise that Sandra Bullock‘s name didn’t come up as a serious first-pick choice until now. With Warner Bros. reportedly nervous about the idea of an $80m sci-fi film in which one actress is the only person on screen for much of the time, turning to Bullock seems like a no-brainer."

The gist of the post is that Cuaron wants Portman, but the WB wants Bullock. Assuming this is correct (and let's face it...) artistically it's the studio which is making the more creative choice. At this point, The Blind Side accepted, Bullock's career was in something of a quagmire, not financially as this Forbes piece demonstrates with numbers, but creatively having spent most of the noughties pre and post Crash appearing in slightly rubbishy and obvious romcoms, with the exception of Infamous which like Gravity showed what she's capable as an actress. A bankable star, but in Hollywood terms (and I'm not impressed with myself for pointing this out) an aging one. Portman for all her relative lack of bankability at this point seems like the more obvious choice for the film since she's played this sort of character before. Putting Bullock front and centre in a film like this is an astonishingly poignant and risky move and I think one of the reasons this may be a game changer and hopefully not a one off, is that it might make the studios more flexible when casting these kinds of somewhat riskier films both in terms of gender and age.

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
Natalie Portman Now Negotiating For Lead in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’
"Cuarón reportedly wanted Portman thanks in large part to her work in Black Swan, and put the offer out to her for the picture in early September. Warner Bros. has been said to be nervous about the financial prospects of the film, which is budgeted at around $80m and features the lead actress alone on screen for most of the running time. The idea is that a marquee actress is needed to sell the film. Jolie is an obvious choice; with Portman on board, I wonder if Cuarón will be asked to reduce his budget, which has been discussed as a possible necessity. Robert Downey, Jr. co-stars in a smaller role."

See above. There's a narrative in development here by /film. Note Downey Jr is still attached.

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010
Natalie Portman No Longer Pulled By ‘Gravity,’ Next Up is Sandra Bullock
"The slam-dunk casting is Portman, no question — she could knock the picture out of the park. But I’d like to see what Bullock can do with it. That said, I’ll be only half surprised if she passes. When you’re in line behind actresses like Jolie and Portman, who’ve both passed, would it seem like a job you’d be eager to dive into? Then again, these decisions are made for many reasons, and we haven’t read the latest script draft, which has been said to fix a lot of old problems."

The narrative continues. But there can't be many paragraphs posted on film blogs containing that many qualifications. The dates are worth looking at. This story and pre-production process on the film has been in progress for over six months. Notice too the mention of script revisions.

Monday, October 25th, 2010
Could Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ Lose Robert Downey, Jr.?
"Mike Fleming at Deadline says he’s hearing that Mr. Downey will have to pull out of the film thanks to scheduling issues, and while he doesn’t say anything specific, that means Sherlock Holmes 2. Here’s the good news: both Sherlock and Gravity are Warner Bros. films, and the studio has every interest in working things out so that the actor can appear in both movies. Indeed, WB is telling Deadline that there really isn’t any problem, and that things will be sorted out."

The narrative shifts to the male lead. The general sense being presented in all these recent posts is that this is a project in jeopardy, that can't find the right cast.

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010
Robert Downey, Jr. Leaves the Cast of ‘Gravity,’ May Join ‘How to Talk to Girls’
"The last time we reported on Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity, which has had a hell of a time assembling a core cast, the production was reportedly in danger of losing Robert Downey, Jr. He had long been set to play a key supporting role in the film, even through the process where a series of actresses from Angelina Jolie to Natalie Portman and finally Sandra Bullock were courted for the lead."

There he goes. How different would the film have been with Downey Jr? I think Clooney brings a different energy and baggage to him, and increases the sense of this being a companion piece to Soderbergh's Solaris in some ways. But you could imagine Downey Jr in that role perfectly well. Anyway at this point, Gravity now lacks its entire cast. Apparently.

Thursday, December 16th, 2010
George Clooney Replaces Robert Downey, Jr. in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’
"The cast for Alfonso Cuarón‘s 3D sci-fi space film Gravity has finally come down to Earth. After months of shuffling both the male and female leads, it seems that George Clooney will star opposite Sandra Bullock, replacing Robert Downey, Jr., who dropped out not long ago."

Woosh, here we are. After nearly a year, Gravity now starts looking like the film we're all watching.

Monday, April 18th, 2011
Producer Says Alfonso Cuarón‘s ‘Gravity’ Shoots in May, Will Be Post-Converted to 3D
"Collider (via The Playlist) talked to Mr. Heyman at CinemaCon, and he said that the film “starts at the end of May,” as he waxed very enthusiastic about Mr. Cuarón’s directorial abilities. (“The whole film has been pre-vised and figured out, it’s fuckin’ awesome. I mean, unlike anything you’ve seen in space. It’s just great. He’s a privilege to work with—he’s a real visionary.”) And it sounds like this is going to be a technological leap forward from Children of Men"

And how. This is all standard working procedure on film blogs as the narrative shifts again from the cast to production details. The 3D is a bit of a grey area in relation to Gravity since much of the films is CG and so was probably animated in 3D anyway.

Monday, August 15th, 2011
Guillermo Del Toro Calls Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ “Completely Mind-Blowing”
"What is incredible about what they did is, they talked to David Fincher, they talked to Jim Cameron, I connected Jim and Alfonso for that. And what Alfonso is trying, is so insane. And Jim said, well, look, you’re about five years into the future…it’s too early to try anything that crazy. And they did it!"

This is another fairly typical post. Indication of what a film might be like offered by guy we like. But it's two years before the film's release and already we have indications that it's going to be something special.

Wednesday, December 28th, 2011
Russ Fischer’s 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2012
"We seem to be hitting a point where studios and financiers are willing to gamble on original sci-fi properties, so long as there is some commercial hook. This list has three films that might not have been made at a different nexus point, but we’re lucky enough to get at least three in ’12 and a fourth, Elysium, in ’13. The hook here is that Children of Men director Alfonso Cuarón is creating a film that is nearly a one-woman show in which Sandra Bullock has to navigate her way to safety after an orbital mission goes wrong. His methodology seems to be an expansion of the approach that led to the long takes and famous car shot from Children of Men. Gravity may end up looking like it is built from only a handful of very long takes. Even without that element of technical spectacle, Cuarón is an impressive director, and after six long years I’m happy he’s back."

Bit early. He also has Only God Forgives on the list which also didn't get a release until this year. He put Gravity way below Prometheus and Looper. In a word, heh.

Tuesday, January 3rd
Part of Alfonso Cuaron’s Approach to Capturing ‘Gravity’ Was “No Makeup”
"God help us all when my face comes rushing at you with no makeup on. I’m going to apologize now, but Alfonso, in a brilliant move, said, ‘No makeup.’"

Eight paragraphs built around a single quote. I'm not sure I noticed though it's fair to say that the film pleasingly allows Bullock to show her age. She still looks amazing. Just as she always has. I'll stop gushing now.

Friday, May 4th, 2012
Early Buzz: Reactions from the First Test Screening for Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’
"This week in Pasadena, Gravity had its first test screening, and while the cut was apparently very rough, audiences saw enough to form some strong opinions about it. From here, it sounds like it could be this year’s Tree of Life — gorgeous, innovative, worthy of acclaim, and perhaps a little divisive. Hit the jump to see some reactions."

Notice the date. That's nearly eighteen months ago and it was already being test screened and in a very early form. The reports are mixed and that hasn't changed. Most of the commentary I've seen, not unlike Inception and There Will Be Blood actually, is mixed between those who think it is a game changer and people who've missed the point. This highlighted AICN post in particular is bang on: "This is like if Avatar had been released in 1927 a week after The Jazz Singer." Yep, pretty much.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2012
Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ Pushed To 2013
"One of the most anticipated films of 2012 has officially been delayed. Alfonso Cuaron‘s Gravity, originally set for release in November, has been moved to a not-yet-specified date in 2013. The film, which stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, recently began test screening and it’s safe to assume Cuaron and the Warner Bros. executives felt it needed a bit more time to reach its full potential. The sci-fi thriller is said to be very effects heavy."

Not unsurprising given what we've read so far and the result. The tone here is very good. Usually on film blogs when a film slips its usually seen as a bad sign and given the narrative to this point you wouldn't be surprised if /Film added it to their jeopardy narrative. But based on comments of Del Torro and the test audiences they've shifted their stance into supporting the film and so have decided that the slippage is for post-production reasons. Given all of this, do we really thing Star Trek VII which is sure to be just as effects heavy and is still casting will be ready for the end of 2015?!?

Wednesday, October 24th, 2012
Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ Near Completion? MPAA Hands Sci-Fi Thriller PG-13 Rating
"Had all gone according to plan for Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity, we’d be eagerly talking up its Oscar potential in anticipation of its release next month. However, Cuarón’s effects-heavy sci-fi epic apparently needed a bit more time to come together than had originally been projected. In May, Warner Bros. announced it’d be pushing back the release to an unspecified date in 2013. The open-ended nature of the announcement naturally had some movie lovers fearing production woes and wondering when we’d finally get to see the finished product."

Six months later and ... was it ready then?

Monday, December 31st, 2012
Angie’s 10 Most Anticipated Films of 2013
"Gritty and grim but deeply humane, Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children of Men was one of the most potent sci-fi films to hit in recent years. Advance buzz indicates that Gravity may be even more brilliant, with a career high performance for Sandra Bullock. Perhaps it won’t be for everyone, but Cuarón’s ambition will make this worth checking out even if it’s less than perfect. Had I made a most-anticipated list last year, Gravity would’ve been on it. But Cuarón decided he needed a little extra time to get it right, so instead it’s one of 2013′s most exciting contenders. (Release TBD)"

She puts it at number three behind Joss Whedon's Much Ado and Before Midnight. The list also included Bullock's other 2013 film The Heat (really?) and a Untitled Diablo Cody Project which I don't think has had a release yet.

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013
Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity’ Will Take Flight In October
"Alfonso Cuaron‘s latest, Gravity, is back on the map. After having a 2012 release date and then being pushed into this year, Warner Bros. has now dated the George Clooney/Sandra Bullock sci-fi thriller for October 4. It’ll open against Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 3D, Harrison Ford and Liam Hemsworth in Paranoia and Vince Vaughn’s latest, The Delivery Man."

The US October date was accurate in the end though none of the rest of that sentence is. Everything slipped or in the case of Star Wars 3D cancelled. By that point the forward word on Gravity was too big for it have anything other than some counter programming opposite it. It's about the only film released in the UK this week.

At which point we're in the recent past and I'll break off again. The narrative from there is pretty well known, the well received test screening in Venice and then one of the best film trailers ever produced.  Reading back through these Slashfilm posts can we say if the film was ever really in jeopardy?  Don't know.  But if nothing else it underscores what William Goldman says: "No one knows anything."

If in 2010 someone had said that a sci-fi action adventure film starring Sandra Bullock would turn out to be one of the greatest films ever made let alone of 2013, would anyone have believed them?

[Updated 13/11/2013  Kristin's uploaded her second post about Gravity which covers how the film was made and its visual structure.]

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