Blu-ray Review: Gravity

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As movie events go, nothing like Gravity had ever come down the pike before. Buoyed by a series of jaw-dropping teaser trailers, audiences were primed for something extraordinary and that is exactly what they got. When seen in 3D on the largest screen possible (IMAX being preferable), the movie was an existential tour de force. The marketing campaign revealed just enough to hook us, as nothing could quite prepare viewers for the experience of spending roughly 90 minutes in space, floating in zero G with Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). As a sensory experience, Gravity (on the big screen) is arguably unrivaled in all of movie history. Now that it’s hitting Blu-ray (own it February 25, also available on Blu-ray 3D and standard DVD), just in time for the Oscars (it’s nominated for ten, including Best Picture), the question is: how does it hold up on a comparatively puny TV in an average living room?

Gravity ba 1.jpgThe answer, to my extremely pleasant surprise, is that Gravity makes the transition quite well. Given that Warner Bros. has put together a tremendous Blu-ray presentation (this review is based on the standard 2D edition), the strengths of the film’s scripting and acting translate beautifully to the smaller screen environment. I worried that, when stripped of the startling you-are-there theatrical experience, it might come across as something less than event-worthy. If anything, the reverse happened. My initial thought after first screening Gravity was that writer-director Alfonso Cuarón built the film on a series of well-executed tricks. The movie, I thought, almost seemed more like a thrill ride then a piece of well-crafted storytelling. After watching it again, my opinion has been revised. The high-wire tautness of the story combines with the finer nuances of both Bullock and Clooney’s characterizations to form a deeply satisfying viewing experience that justifies all the hype and box office dollars generated during its theatrical run.

Gravity a 1.jpgAnyone who doesn’t already know the premise should go into Gravity with as little knowledge as possible. The story itself is the very picture of simplicity. A satellite detonation ignites a chain reaction that results in a series of collisions that produces a cloud of high-velocity debris. Stone and Kowalski are part of a space shuttle crew. They’re working on a Hubble telescope repair, but that’s really beside the point. They need to get out of the way of the speeding debris, meaning they essentially need to dodge thousands of bullets. What follows is a breathtakingly high stakes survival story that unfolds in the most hostile of environments imaginable.

There are some coincidences (involving characters managing to utilize foreign tech, executing a few too many lucky guesses) along the way that stretch credibility at times. A bit of cursory research reveals that Gravity is, for Hollywood standards, relatively realistic in its depiction of astronauts operating in the vacuum of space. The effect of Stone tumbling untethered into the void is terrifying. The effect of Stone using an oxygen take to control her trajectory through space (after the film goes to such great pains to show the incredible difficulty of navigation) is a bit less convincing. But honestly, when considering the immensely absorbing viewing experience as a whole, most complaints begin to feel like nitpicking. Gravity is a science fiction gem that will likely continue to be enjoyed for many generations.

Gravity b 1.jpgWarner has given Gravity a gorgeous Blu-ray presentation that should live up to everyone’s expectations. Few movies are quite so reliant upon visual effects for maximum viewing satisfaction, so it was vitally important that everything be top of the line here. The blackness of deep space is as deeply inky as can be. The edginess of the various space stations and their hardware is crisp, with every hose and piece of wiring discernible even in wide shots. And there are no visual artifacts to be seen. Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography is given the royal treatment, with a technically perfect high definition home video rendering.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is also top notch. The mix is a stunning blend of subtle quietude and surging sonic energy. The former dominates, making the latter all the more effective. But quiet doesn’t mean uninteresting. Consider the opening, pre-disaster scene in which we hear disembodied voices from Mission Control floating around the sound field. It’s eerie and enveloping. Steven Price’ stealthily effective score blends with the effects in just the right ways, never drawing attention to itself. The sound in Gravity is every bit as important as the visuals and this Blu-ray excels in both departments.

Gravity c 1.jpgEver start watching a string of Blu-ray featurettes and wonder why they bothered including them? That’s not the case with Gravity. The centerpiece of the supplements is a series of nine featurettes called “Mission Control” that combine (via a play-all option) to form a 106-minute documentary. Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop. While there’s certainly something to be said for wanting to preserve the illusions the filmmakers so breathtakingly created, if you want a glimpse at how the effects were achieved then this is fascinating viewing. And it’s not just the F/X that get all the attention. The longest individual segment is “It Began with a Story” (16 minutes) that explores the screenplay itself. From previsualization to the challenges of depicting a realistic weightless environment, there’s plenty of cool stuff here.

Under the heading “Shot Breakdowns,” we find five more featurettes. These are just as well-produced as the ones found in “Mission Control” and run for a total of 37 minutes. Each segment allows us to look deeper into specific key moments from the movie. Anyone left craving more after “Mission Control” will love these, which allow us to see the nuts-and-bolts behind such scenes as “Fire Inside the International Space Station.” The Ed Harris-narrated “Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space” is a fascinating (and scary) 22-minute piece that examines the real-life threat of the increasing amount of man-made debris orbiting the Earth. The Blu-ray combo pack includes a standard DVD and UltraViolet digital copy.

Gravity cover 1.jpgThe only special feature I could’ve done without is Aningaaq, a short film by Alfonso Cuarón. The optional introduction provides some context, but essentially this is just the Earth-bound side of Dr. Stone’s random conversation late in the film. Here we see the Inuit fisherman character that Stone speaks with, or tries to considering she doesn’t speak his native tongue. It’s comes across as mildly cheesy and only emphasizes one of Cuarón’s most brilliant choices: setting all of Gravity in space. We don’t need to see the terrestrial side of things. Incidentally, it’s worth pointing out that by resisting the temptation to show us anything transpiring on the ground while the orbital chaos unfolds, Gravity doesn’t outstay its welcome. Clocking in at a brisk 91 minutes, it’s the type of movie seemingly envisioned for repeat viewing.

Images: Warner Bros.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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