In the opening sequence of Gravity, astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are repairing the Hubble telescope orbiting Earth when disaster strikes, sending her hurtling through space, untethered, floating farther and farther away until she's just another tiny white light in the cosmos.
The scene neatly sets up all the elements of the remarkable film that follows. There is no sound in space, so when the telescope explodes silently, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to catch up and realize what's happening, because your ears can't help you. The camera floats weightlessly the way the astronauts do, like magic, occasionally pulling in for a close-up of Bullock's face, somehow going through the glass of her helmet to show us her eyes, then back out again. And much of the startling sequence unfolds in one single, uninterrupted shot that lasts 10 minutes? Fifteen? Twenty?
Director Alfonso Cuarón isn't telling.
"I honestly don't know the exact length," he says by telephone from Los Angeles. "We weren't trying to compete in the Olympics of long shots. We didn't want the shot to call attention to itself. Otherwise it becomes the goal of the scene — it becomes what I call a 'Look, Ma, no hands!' kind of shot. We're just doing stuff that makes sense for our narrative. Your shots are part of your movie's language. And the language of this movie is to make you feel like you're floating up in space with the characters."
Gravity, which opens Friday, is the culmination of a process that began nearly five years ago when Cuarón's son Jonás asked him to read a script he had written called Desierto (Desert), about two illegal immigrants battling the elements while trying to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
Cuarón, who hadn't directed a movie since 2006's dystopian sci-fi adventure Children of Men, was invigorated by the focus and intensity of the screenplay (which Jonás is soon to direct himself, starring Gael García Bernal).
"I really didn't have that many notes to give him about his script," Cuarón, 52, says. "Instead, I asked him if he would write something else like it with me. He kind of took me out of a chest, dusted me off and reawakened my desire to make films. We wanted to do something along the lines of Desierto — something that was tense and suspenseful from the start of the film to the end, sprinkled with thematic elements that are conveyed through visual metaphors instead of dialogue. And then we started talking about the metaphorical possibilities of space."
Although the finished screenplay for Gravity was 90 pages, the movie is light on dialogue, most of it consisting of playful banter between Clooney, Bullock and the NASA command center — at least until their situation becomes dire, and then the joking stops.
But to make the ambitious movie he envisioned in his head, Cuarón first needed to find out if it was even possible.
"Every film is like a free-fall," he says. "You just have to jump and hope that your parachute will open. We spent a lot of time developing the technology to shoot this movie, and we didn't know if it was going to work until deep in the process."
Gravity's development process was so lengthy that several actors circled the project, including Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey Jr., but then had scheduling conflicts. When the filmmakers finally had a concrete starting date, Bullock and Clooney landed the roles, and the parts were rewritten slightly for them.
"After my first conversation with Sandra, it was clear to me that she was the only one who could star in this film," Cuarón says. "She had read the script and after three hours of talking, she had never one mentioned space or technology. She was only interested in the emotional journey of her character."
Once Bullock signed on, she began to research the technical aspects of her role. Unlike most sci-fi films set in outer space, Gravity tries to adhere to the laws of science whenever possible.
Dr. Catherine "Cady" Coleman, a NASA astronaut who has logged more than 4,000 hours in space, had just watched The Blind Side aboard the International Space Station when she received a call from Bullock, who wanted to pick Coleman's brain.
"She asked a lot about how you move around up in space," Coleman says. "How much you would use your hands and feet; the difference between being inside and outside a station; whether you float or fly. We also talked about the feeling of being one of just a few people living in a space station, doing work that is really important and can't be done from the ground, being alone up there."
Advancements in computer-generated imagery have made it possible for filmmakers to put on screen whatever they can imagine. But Gravity is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in the way it raises the bar on visual effects, using new and existing technology in ways never seen before in movies.
Combined with the film's superb 3-D effects, the illusion of being in space is so realistic you come out of the theater not wanting to know how it was done.
"I'm really glad you're saying that," Cuarón says. "I would love for audiences to go see the film and experience it for themselves. Later on, after people have seen it, I'll be happy to talk about how we did it. But in principle, it's like going to see David Copperfield perform. You don't want to know the behind-the-scenes stuff in advance."