Awards Profile: Gravity

Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón and Rodrigo García

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Synopsis (from MarketSaw): Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) in command of his last flight before retiring. But on a seemingly routine spacewalk, disaster strikes.

The shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky completely alone–tethered to nothing but each other and spiraling out into the blackness. The deafening silence tells them they have lost any link to Earth…and any chance for rescue. As fear turns to panic, every gulp of air eats away at what little oxygen is left. But the only way home may be to go further out into the terrifying expanse of space.

Awards Speculation:
What is Gravity?  How does one even speculate on a film of which we know very little?  Based on the synopsis, we’re clearly looking at a not-so-distant future science fiction thriller.  But other than that, this project has been shrouded in mystery ever since it was put into motion two years ago, with not a single production still or teaser released yet.  But despite such scant information about the project other than some cryptic statements from those involved (and, more importantly, not based on any existing property), this film is one of the most buzzed-about upcoming releases of 2012.  How is that possible?

While there are a few factors contributing to its level of expectation at this point, they all trace back to one man: Alfonso Cuarón.  This visionary director has emerged as one of the most promising filmmakers we have today.  His sensual chronicle of lustful, youthful abandon in Y tu mamá también is one of the finest examples of Mexican cinema.  His moodier, more emotionally credible take on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban nearly single-handedly saved the entire film franchise from the excruciating tedium of Chris Columbus (to those who hate on the film but gush over the subsequent installments: is it not obvious how the later films ditched the static camera and homely reds and golds from Sorcerer’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets in favor of aping Cuarón’s more haunting color palette and roving camera?).  Then in 2006 he gave us Children of Men, one of the most accomplished science fiction epics of the 21st Century so far.  His highly intricate shot compositions (with the help of his longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki) and infusion of muted but potent sexual, emotional and social observations through visuals have distinguished him greatly from the increasingly pedestrian eye of most American filmmakers.  The return of any exceptional director after a long absence – think Paul Thomas Anderson and There Will Be Blood – is enough to stir anticipation.

But there is a lot more to be excited for than simply the name behind it.  It appears that those “in the know” have been blown away by the audacity of what he’s attempting, most famously what his friend Guillermo del Toro had to say to MTV News:

Waitaminute, James Cameron told him the technology involved was too ambitious!?  What the hell was he trying to do, actually shoot the film in space?  Well, not quite, but the plan is apparently to fake it well enough to fool anyone watching.  Filmed digitally, Gravity will apparently be using never-before seen technology to immerse us into the feeling of being isolated in space.  The result is reportedly so unique that producer David Heyman and star Bullock find themselves at a loss for words when asked to describe it, only managing to stammer out a few exaltations.

Looking for specifics from there only leads to rumors and whispers of what we should expect to see.  Among them:

  • The film is said to be nearly silent, with long stretches of scenes with zero dialogue.
  • Early script reviews described the film as relentless in its action, though it has almost certainly been reworked heavily by this point.
  • Sandra Bullock has already been talking about the intense physical demands of the part, including near-total isolation and no makeup allowed (I know, I know, another movie star whining about her awesome job.  Still, it’s an interesting tidbit…)
  • With an $80 million budget, the amount of CGI used to create the setting has been reported from anywhere between 60%-80% of the film’s visuals.
  • Reports of a 20-minute single shot sequence opening the film.
  • One of the more debated elements of Gravity is its use 3D, which surprisingly has not been filmed that way from the get-go but will be converted in post-production.  What that will mean for the final product remains to be seen.

Not much in the way of concrete information, I know, but it’s certainly enough to see the ambition so often touted by Cuarón’s acquaintances.  What this means for Gravity’s Oscar prospects is even more of a mystery.  I’m sure I don’t need to remind anyone that no science fiction film has ever won the Academy Award for Best Picture, but then again prior to Feb 29th of 2004 no fantasy film had ever won either, and the genre has historically made a lot of headway in the awards season when there’s a lot of technical ambition behind it.  At the very least, it should be considered a frontrunner for several crafts categories at this point, including Visual Effects, Sound and Cinemato…no, no, don’t get your hopes up, Robert.  They hate Lubezki, just accept it…

Many were considered; she accepted.

That’s not to say all the signs are pointing to success with Gravity.  Most notably, for such a supposedly amazing project with a meaty role, seemingly every actress in Hollywood had turned it down before landing on Miss Congeniality, including Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Carey Mulligan, Sienna Miller, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall, Olivia Wilde and Angelina Jolie.  Whether it was the nature of the project, personal conflicts – Portman dropped out due to her pregnancy, for example – or something worse is impossible to tell at this point.  While I steadfastly refuse to join the widespread backlash against Bullock in the wake of her Oscar win, her presence here is nevertheless strangely underwhelming to me.  Her strengths – of which she utilized to be the only good thing about the otherwise appalling The Blind Side – just don’t seem to “fit” with the intensity of this role.  Then again, with very little sense of what this film actually is, perhaps she’ll show us a side of her we’ve never seen before?  Either way, such a troubled casting effort inevitably casts a pall over the production.  Also in what is increasingly sounding like a supporting role is George Clooney, replacing Robert Downey, Jr.  Since his last performance in space was Steven Soderbergh’s underrated Solaris, I’m looking forward to liking him again.

I’m not going to pretend that Alfonso Cuarón will guarantee us an extraordinary film, as he is certainly not above directing tripe.  I’m not going to proclaim that any of his lofty ambitions will be fully or even partially realized.  But with every indication we have so far, it would be unwise to bet against a film aiming to have this grand of a scale with all of the creative intent of an art film.  If I could see only one movie this year, it would be Gravity.

Gravity will be released on November 21st, 2012 and is being distributed by Warner Bros.

Oscar Potential:
Best Picture
Best Director
Best Original Screenplay
Best Lead Actress — Sandra Bullock
Best Art Direction
Best Film Editing
Best Cinematography
Best Visual Effects
Best Original Score
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing