USA TODAY - The billboards are stark, just Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating cryptically in deep space. But the early reviews? A mixture of wiped-brow-meets-awe. So what do you need to know about Gravity as it opens nationwide today? USA TODAY's Andrea Mandell, Bryan Alexander and Scott Bowles count down 10 key reasons why the film is on a mission toward Oscar glory.
1. APPROVAL FROM FOLKS WHO'VE BEEN THERE - "Space is so beautiful," says astronaut Leroy Chiao, a veteran of four space missions. "But it's a very unforgiving environment. The premise of the movie is sort of the ultimate nightmare." Producer David Heyman adds: "One astronaut told me, 'Thank you for making this film. It really took me back to space, both in the visuals and the sounds. I will now be able to take my family to space in a way I never have before.' "
2. THE ADVANCE PROPULSION BY CRITICS - James Cameron has called it "the best space film ever done" after seeing it in Venice. Dave Karger, chief correspondent for the movie ticket site Fandango.com, says "I cannot think of another movie this year that has carried such overwhelmingly positive buzz. "It's the perfect combination of huge stars that everyone loves plus the incredible hook of two people lost in space." And USA TODAY critic Claudia Puig gives the film four stars out of four.
3. THE TRACKING SHOT - Critics are hailing one scene in Alfonso's Cuaron's space odyssey as a visual game-changer. The praise centers on the 13-minute, uncut opening. The sequence, which sets up the entire movie with a scene of satellite debris crippling a space shuttle, marks one of the longest "tracking shots" in Hollywood history, and the first of that length in 3-D. Filmmakers digitally choreographed the scene with. Using animation, Cuar?n planned the scene so the camera could follow the astronauts as they drifted around their craft hundreds of miles above Earth. He then shot Bullock and Clooney (or their face and arms) for 13 minutes of dialogue before digitally painting them into space suits.
4. CLOONEY CONTRIBUTES CHARMINGLY - Jonas says Clooney injected his trademark personal magnetism on the set. Playing veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, "his character's job is to relax Ryan. To make her less scared. The character utilized a lot of humor. George is the same way on set. He and Sandra were on these very uncomfortable rigs. I think the only reason they didn't break and really get upset about the situation is because George kept this sense of humor going that made the whole process light."
5. CLOONEY CONTRIBUTES CREATIVELY - During one problematic scene, "we were trying to find the right words that didn't feel melodramatic, that felt truthful," says Bullock. "And George had been around us and seen that struggle happening. He sent Alfonso an e-mail after he left and he goes, 'Throw this away if you want, but I sort of wrote a little something that I thought might be good for Sandy (Bullock) to say.'" Clooney's dialogue for Bullock worked, and remains in film as her character grapples with a life-altering decision.
6. ZERO GRAVITY COURTESY OF 'WAR HORSE' - For much of Gravity's shoot, Bullock was manipulated as if she were a hyper-athletic doll by puppeteers who previously had worked on the Tony Award-winning Broadway play War Horse. To simulate an astronaut in space, Bullock was attached to a 12-wire apparatus and moved like "a very technical puppet," says Jonas. Bullock called the acrobatic process lonely, frustrating and just plain painful. "After a while you just get used it. And you wanted to kill (producer) David (Heyman) and Alfonso regularly, and I used that as well,'' she jokes. "Just (use) all your hate, and anger, and rage - you just give forth in your work, and hope it translates on the screen."
7. IT'S ACTUALLY WORTH IT TO SEE IT IN 3D - Whether you love Hollywood's favorite new dimension or eschew it, it's worth it to see Gravity on the biggest screen possible and in 3-D (it's available in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX formats). Fandango reports that 94% of booming advance sales are for 3-D and IMAX screens.
8. STUNNING, 'PLANET EARTH'-STYLE BACKDROPS - The filmmakers initially thought Gravity would be simple to make. Jon?s predicted: "It's only two characters, in space, it will only require a little bit of maybe wire and some green screens?" Instead, the film took four and a half years to create. "When we started trying to put together the film it soon became clear that the technology to achieve what we were trying to do (was not there) so we had to invent the whole technology," says the director.
9. NO MORE SEAT FATIGUE - At just 91 minutes, Gravity is sharply conceived, tightly written and wondrously shot. Which makes the white-knuckle experience almost a relief after a legion of long-winded dramas took over the multiplex recently. "The main idea my dad and I had when we wrote the script was to create a roller-coaster ride where the audience went through this emotional, non-stop journey," says the younger Cuaron. "We tried to be as concise as possible."
10. YOU'VE NEVER SEEN BULLOCK LIKE THIS - Gravity took the Venice and Toronto film festivals by storm. On stage in Toronto, the actress said she felt she hadn't deserved her 2010 Oscar for The Blind Side, "So I thought, OK, I'm going to spend the rest of my life hopefully earning it." The thriller puts her into orbit opposite Clooney as astronauts whose mission goes terribly wrong. Bullock delivers a tremulous, intensely physical performance as Ryan Stone, a medical engineer, "who has shut herself down from life," says screenwriter Jonas Cuaron, who wrote Gravity with his father, director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men). "She's very closed. Her space suit is a metaphor for a bubble. (But) Sandra's a very maternal, nurturing person. So what was really interesting for me to see the journey, how the character of Ryan starts so far away from what Sandra is."
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