The most famous part of Alfonso Cuarón’s last directed movie, “Children Of Men” (2006), is a 378-second long moving shot (see 24:22 of linked video) that follows the protagonist through an intricately coordinated war zone.
I was about five minutes into his new movie, the incredibly well-reviewed “Gravity,” when it occurred to me that there hadn’t been a single cut.
Had I read the film blogs for the past two years, I would have known that geeks and insiders were salivating over the 17-minute take that Cuarón had said would open his new movie. As executive producer Chris DeFaria told Bill Desowitz and others at a conference: “Alfonso had an idea that he wanted the shots to be incredibly long, and I said, ‘How long?’ And he said he wanted the first shot to be really long. And I said, ‘You mean, 40 seconds?’ ‘No, 17 minutes.'”
Directed by Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (also of “Children Of Men”), the shot is a masterpiece.
[Spoilers limited to the first 17 minutes.]
After some ominous text, the movie opens to a shot of earth from space. As it lingers on this tranquil view, signs of life emerge: faint radio chatter comes from different sides and objects drift into the frame, the Hubble Telescope and something spinning around it that we soon see is an astronaut in a jet pack.
The camera drifts weightlessly, following the fantastic movements of veteran astronaut Matt Kowlaski (George Clooney) in the jet pack and showing specialist Shariff (Paul Sharma) as he completes a repair and dances in space — while Kowlaski banters with mission control on the radio — before revealing bio-medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) clinging to the telescope and struggling to fix a component, then showing Kowlaski jet over and help her out.
The pleasant scene is abruptly interrupted when mission control tells them to abort the mission, that debris from a destroyed satellite that was supposed to miss them has destroyed more satellite, sending a deadly hail of missiles in their direction. Before they can return to their shuttle, the debris arrives. The camera watches a large object hurtle toward them and pass narrowly.
The camera pans to Kowlaski and the other astronauts as they try to evacuate, while debris hurtles past. Then something big smashes into the shuttle and sets it spinning, with Stone attached by a long component arm, and the camera, facing toward Earth, watches her spin. Then something else smashes into the shuttle and the arm breaks off, spinning wildly away from Earth and toward the retreating camera.
The camera focuses in on Stone and begins to move with her, showing her terrified face as she spins and the background cycles from Earth to space, while over the radio Kowlaski tells her to detach herself before she gets too far away; and then she detaches herself and is flung away from Earth.
The camera no longer moves with her as she tumbles into space, becoming smaller and smaller in the distance, before finally the film cuts to black.
During the opening, Kowlaski talks about how many minutes away he is from beating Anatoly Solovyev’s record long spacewalk. Perhaps this obsession with time serves as an inside joke for a take that lasts longer than almost anything in mainstream cinema.
The take isn’t long just for the sake of being long.
As Cuarón told the New York Times, “We wanted to slowly immerse audiences into first the environment and then to immerse them into the action, and the ultimate goal of this whole experiment was for the audiences to feel as if they are a third character who is floating with our other two characters in space.”
There is a beautiful arc to it too, beginning with a shot of earth and a mighty astronaut flying above it and ending with a shot of space and a helpless astronaut falling into it.
The rest of the movie is just as good, full of long takes, hypnotic zero-gravity action, and great acting.
Here’s a rudimentary explanation of how it was filmed from Marlow Stern at The Daily Beast:
[Cuarón and Lubezki] came up with the idea of rotating lights around a stationary actor to make it appear as if he or she was moving around rapidly. They developed a 9-by-14-foot “light box,” nicknamed “The Cage” and lined with six giant LED panels composed of, he says, “millions of lights,” which surrounded the actors, who were held up by harnesses that appeared invisible on screen. Then they designed “a race track” outside The Cage where a car-manufacturing robot with a camera installed inside would race around it and pop its arm inside various openings, to recreate the effect of floating and spinning around in space. The background, meanwhile, was added in post-production.
The use of 3-D is also excellent, with Cuarón telling Stern: “Gravity” was designed for 3-D “from Day 1,” and in the four and a half years of making the film, “about three and a half was for 3-D work.”
Here’s an extended trailer of “Gravity” showing the last two minutes of the opening scene:
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