Sunday, February 23, 2014

Gravity Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
Experience space like never before in the Academy Award-nominated Gravity, arriving onto Blu-ray 3D Combo Pack, Blu-ray Combo Pack, DVD and Digital HD on February 25 from Warner Bros. Home Entertainment. A heart-pounding thriller starring Academy Award winners Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side) and George Clooney (Syriana), and stunningly directed by Academy Award-nominee Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity pulls you into the infinite and unforgiving realm of deep space.  Gravity has become one of the most honored films of the year, garnering 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Motion Picture of the Year, Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role – Sandra Bullock, and Achievement in Directing – Alfonso Cuarón.

Film (5 out of 5 stars)
Every once in a while a film comes along and captures the public's imagination and restores their sense of wonder and reminds them of the sheer power that films can deliver if done correctly. In the hands of visionary director Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity does just that with its perfect blend of artistic and commercial showmanship. Gravity's tense and thrilling space visuals surpass past efforts like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Avatar and its verisimilitude just makes it even more absorbing. 

Gravity is the first great disaster movie of the 21st century and it represents the next logical progression from earlier Earth-based disaster films like Airport, Earthquake, The Towering Inferno, and The Poseidon Adventure. Instead of an ocean liner being flipped over, the focus of this movie is an epic disaster that befalls one of our space shuttles and its crew. And like all the best disaster movies, we are given a chance to get to know the doomed characters before the disaster strikes and then watch them try to survive their terrible fate against all odds. We know some characters will live and some will die and we will wait with baited breath to see if, how, and who will miraculously escape their apparent fate.

The film opens with the crew of the space shuttle Explorer attempting to fix the Hubble Space Telescope. Medical Engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is the one handling the repairs while the mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) uses his thruster pack to orbit the shuttle and keep an eye on Stone. Aboard the shuttle, the rest of the crew is awaiting the completion of their mission when Mission Control in Houston (in a nice touch voiced by Ed Harris) warns them that the Russians have fired a missile at one of their inoperative satellites which has caused a chain reaction of space debris that's headed towards them.

In a bravura and unbroken sequence, Cuarón shows us the terrifying effects that the space debris has on the space shuttle and the Hubble Space Telescope as they are ripped to shreds and Stone is thrown spinning off into space, unable to stop her momentum. Communication with Mission Control is lost and Kowalski manages to find Stone and saves her using his thrusters. Returning to the Explorer, they discover that the rest of the crew is dead and they are the only survivors of the accident. By this point, Stone is hysterical but Kowalski is able to calm her down and explain that the only chance they have to survive is to make their way to the International Space Station.

Using the last of his thruster's fuel, they manage to reach the space station and they see that the crew has used one of the Soyuz escape capsules already and the other one was damaged by the debris shower. Kowalski suggests that they use the capsule to make their way to the Chinese space station Tiongong where they can use one of their capsules to return to Earth. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that more bad things happen and more sacrifices will be made because one major disaster isn't enough. Cuarón does allow the audience a few moments to appreciate the grandeur of space and of our planet before Murphy's Law returns to exert its influence on our hapless protagonists.

I loved the film and thought that when judged on its technical merits alone it's a masterpiece. Never has space seemed so beautiful yet dangerous or more real. To say that the special effects in this film looked incredible is to damn it with faint praise. It apparently took three and half years to make the special effects look this good and it shows. Cuarón's proven ability to blend effects, camerawork, and emotion in his movies is prominently on display here. The opening scene where we follow the action in one long take sets a new standard for filmmaking that was praised by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron who said, "I think it's the best space photography ever done, I think it's the best space film ever done, and it's the movie I've been hungry to see for an awful long time."

As spectacular as the direction and the special effects are, the story itself is fairly simple as it's a straight line from one disaster to the next until the end. The characters themselves are not that deep either as Kowalski is an affable veteran of space who loves country music and can still appreciate a sunrise over the Ganges. Stone, on the other hand, is a fairly cold and anti-social engineer who prefers to be alone and hates being in space. I've got to admit that I wasn't a fan of this character and I seriously doubt that she would have passed NASA's psychological and emotional tests or that she would have been sent into space in the first place. 

From the beginning, we see Stone has no place in space or on the team as she doesn't follow orders (which puts them all in jeopardy) and her actions cause the destruction of two space stations and arguably a space shuttle). The movie asks us to believe that she is a brilliant medical engineer but her incompetence and lack of training keeps her at death's door throughout the movie. While played well by Sandra Bullock, the character of Ryan Stone just didn't work for me as I didn't believe in her or thought she would realistically have been sent on the mission. It doesn't help that the rest of the movie seems so real and accurate which only makes her character's deficiencies stand out even more. 

George Clooney does a nice job playing Kowalski with his trademark charm and cool under pressure persona, but this is a role he could do in his sleep. The real stars of this film are director Alfonso Cuarón and the special effects by Framestore, who together make this one unforgettable journey. There are many ways that you can appreciate this movie, whether you believe that it contains a religious allegory, or that it suggests the concept of rebirth (which was Cuarón's intention), or if you just view it as a cautionary space based thrill ride, Gravity is open to all of those interpretations depending on your point of view and beliefs. At the very least, I can only hope that in this time of NASA budget cuts, that Gravity helps restore our interest in space and our sense of wonder in the universe at large. Despite the dangers of space, Cuarón shows us that there's a lot of beauty out there and we should be exploring it.
Video (5 out of 5 stars)
This 1080p (2.40:1) transfer features a flawless presentation that looks so good that it can be used as reference quality. The level of detail on display is staggering with every texture crisply defined especially during close ups where every hair is is distinct. Colors looks wonderful and accurate and just wait until you see the beautiful Northern Lights and the Earth just looks spectacular. The black levels are pitch black and completely solid. This is a gorgeous transfer and it looks so good that I've gone back to watch it several times just to marvel at how good it looks.
Audio (5 out of 5 stars)
Gravity's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is equally fantastic and I really enjoyed how original the sound design for the film was. For a movie set in space with no sound, this was a very difficult film to add sound to which we learned from the extras. The idea of using sound when the actors touch something or by using the powerful musical score by Steven Price to provide a form of sound effects on its own. The dialogue is clear and every breath is easily heard. This mix ranges from complete silence to bombastic when needed and in every case it sounds amazing. The rear channels deliver a sonic soundscape that surrounds the listener completely and the cross channel directionality is accurate and very immersive. Be prepared for your walls to shake once the action starts up because this mix is incredible!
Extras (5 out of 5 stars)
It's rare these days to get really substantial extras that go into considerable detail on how the film was made from start to finish, but that's exactly what we got for Gravity. Warners has put together a comprehensive package of behind the scenes material that shows just how intricate and groundbreaking the making of this film actually was.
  • Gravity: Mission Control - At almost two hours long, this awesome look behind the curtain explains how the magic happened. This is one documentary that's been broken up into nien separate segments (with a play all option). I'm very happy that there's a play all choice but I really wish that they would have cut it as one uninterrupted documentary instead of just playing each segment and its credits in order. The good news is that this documentary covers the entire production from start to finish with a look at the genesis of the script and story, the difficulty in creating a realistic Zero G look, the previsualization process that had the entire movie mapped out in advance, the re-creation of space, how they went about creating the look of weightlessness, how each prop was photographed and rendered into CGI, how Sandra Bullock and George Clooney contributed to the film, a look at how detailed and exact the final animation had to be, and finally a look at the contributions of the sound teams and composer Steven Price who had to create a soundscape in a place where there is no sound. All of that is contained within the following segments: "It Began with a Story," "Initial Challenges: Long Shots and Zero G," "Previsualizing Gravity," "The Hues of Space," "Physical Weightlessness," "Space Tech," "Sandra and George: A Pair in Space," "Final Animation," and finally "Complete Silence."
  • Shot Breakdowns - Totalling thirty-seven minutes long, these segments go into more detail for some specific scenes in the movie. Much of this is also seen in the "Mission Control" documentary, these shots are more specific and are very interesting. We get to see how the CGI visors were created and made to look real in "Behind the Visor," how the fire in the space station was created in "Fire in the International Space Station," a look at how the "rebirth" scene was filmed to look like it happened in Zero G in "Dr. Stone's Rebirth," a closer look at how sound was used for the film in "The Sound of Action in Space," and finally we hear how filming at a real location was the easiest part of the film in "Splashdown."
  • Aningaaq: A Short Film by Jonás Cuarón -  If you wondered who was the person that Stone was trying to talk to during the film, then you will probably want to see this. We see the Inuit fisherman that she inadvertently talks to. Since his dialogue is subtitled, you can finally understand his side of the conversation. This was written and directed by Jonás Cuarón and there is an optional  introduction with him and his father Alfonso Cuarón.
  • Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space - This is a very good twenty-two minute documentary about the real dangers of space junk and what's being done to fix it. This is an issue that has long range ramifications if nothing is done. Actor Ed Harris lends his voice to narrate the film. 
Summary (5 out of 5 stars)
This isn't just a film - it's an experience. This is filmmaking of the highest order and it's easy to see why it has been nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. This film is a tour-de-force by Alfonso Cuarón who should win the Best Director award hands down. This Blu-ray shows how much care and respect Warners has for this film as it offers reference quality video and audio presentations as well as the kind of informative and entertaining extras that fans crave. This is a must buy release!

Order your copy today!

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