Sandra Bullock's fear of flying -- "A plane is difficult enough," the Oscar-winning actress says dryly -- might suggest that "Gravity" was like falling off an interplanetary log: As Dr. Ryan Stone, mission specialist aboard the doomed shuttle Explorer, she's supposed to be a less-than-enthusiastic traveler, one whose phobias come true when her shuttle is shredded by space debris, and she's left marooned, weightless and ready to kiss the Earth -- if and when she can get back to it.
But director Alfonso Cuaron, whose off-world adventure is already being hailed for its visual majesty, breakthrough technology and Bullock's performance, had set out to make the most ambitious space adventure since "2001." And he wasn't above a little mischief to get what he wanted, at least out of his actress.
"We were going to do the vomit comet," Bullock said of NASA's reduced-gravity aircraft, "and shoot two weeks of weightlessness, and I sort of shut off my brain about it -- I didn't want to think about it. And they didn't tell me till right before we were supposed to do it that we weren't going to do it. They intentionally didn't tell me, so I'd be game to do anything else they wanted me to do.
"And it worked," she said, with a kind-of laugh. "I was like, 'I don't care! I'm so happy not to be doing that flight-simulator thing.' It was what you call strategic withholding of information. It was very clever."
What Bullock had to do, besides co-star with George Clooney, was subject herself to the rigorous physical demands of a digital technology that Cuaron and his crew, including acclaimed cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, were literally inventing for the film. (Co-written with Cuaron's son Jonas, it will open Friday in 3-D, 2-D and IMAX.)
"Sandra had to start training months before we started shooting, and we had a gym next to the stage," Cuaron said. "In between shots, she'd had to keep working out and training." The shots in space were supposed to be of a weightless Bullock, so they involved rigs that were designed for the face to be relaxed, while the rest of the body was contorted or strained.
Was it painful?
"Pretty much every day," Bullock said, mirthfully. "I don't remember what the contraption was really called, but we called it the bicycle -- a long, metal pole with a bicycle seat that I had to balance on, with one leg taped to the pole, while the rest of my body had to turn with 30 percent movement." Meaning 30 percent of the speed she'd normally use. One scene involves Bullock's character stripping off her space suit and floating in the space capsule in a manner she herself called "embryonic," and doing it without betraying that she was uncomfortable.
"It was like, 'OK, keep going, keep shooting, no small talk, let's keep going,'" she said. "But it was such a big moment for him and Chivo, and I think the hardest one, and the most emotional.
"My body got used to going at 30 percent," she added. "George and I were sitting upstairs in the Soyuz, and someone below asked if we wanted water and handed it up to us, and George said, 'You know what you just did?' and I said, 'No, what did I just do?' And he said, 'You reached for it slowly.' It's amazing how your mind and body disconnect if you use enough repetition and practice and get used to another rhythm; it becomes easier and easier to reproduce that action."
The results of all the effort are being heralded as something that will re-energize and revalidate the experience of going to a theater to see a movie. There's no way anything but the biggest screens will do justice to Cuaron's vision. Although he's willing to listen to reason.
"I prefer the movie to be seen than not seen," he said. "But I feel that in any experience outside of a movie theater, you're only getting 10 percent of the whole thing. What I wanted with 'Gravity' was an immersive experience in which you are almost like a third character."
It's the first 3-D movie for the director of "Y Tu Mama Tambien," "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Children of Men."
"And I love 3-D," he said. "But it's wrongly used. There's only a handful of examples of films that should be in 3-D. In the rest of them, it's an afterthought."
For Bullock, being in "Gravity" kick-started her creative engine.
"I didn't see it till I went to Venice," she said, referring to the recent film festival, "and I usually never see a movie I'm in more than once, because I'm too busy shredding myself -- 'this is wrong,' 'that's wrong,' 'I shouldn't have done that.' But there was no time to do that. I was watching a cinematic experience and feeling things I hadn't felt in a very long time. Cinematically, and with the sound, the music, I was so blown away I got very excited again about the creative process. I was excited again about being excited."
'Gravity" may be out of this world, but it also taps into a fear that humans have harbored since we started heading into space: What if we can't get back? In addition to multiple episodes of "The Twilight Zone" and "The Outer Limits," these feature films have speculated about the bleak prospect facing those who lack the necessary propulsion to
re-enter Earth's atmosphere, have lost their orbit, and/or have been rocketed by Stanley Kubrick into a multidimensional, parallel universe of twisted time and warped reality.
2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) Keir Dullea certainly doesn't know where he is at the end of Stanley Kubrick's metaphysical masterpiece, and that's practically the same thing as being adrift: After that warp-speed trip through light and sound, he finds himself -- several selves, in fact -- in a French neoclassicist bedroom, where he gets older and older, eats dinner, and then turns into the Star Child. He might not have been lost, but a lot of other people were.
MAROONED (1969) The great John Sturges ("Bad Day at Black Rock," "The Great Escape") directed this prescient adventure about three astronauts (Richard Crenna, Gene Hackman, James Franciscus) who are manning an experimental space station that lacks the power to
re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Gregory Peck is the NASA director trying to thwart politically motivated plans for a rescue of the crew; David Janssen is the astronaut lobbying to bring 'em back alive.
APOLLO 13 (1995) Ron Howard turned out a technically meticulous docudrama about the real-life 1970 mission to the moon that went belly up and became a rescue effort instead. Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred W. Haise were the astronauts; Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and Bill Paxton were the actors being talked out of space by flight director Ed Harris (who provides the voice of the flight director in "Gravity").
LOST IN SPACE (1998) Based, of course, on the '60s CBS television series about the wandering Space Family Robinson, this big-screen adaptation about Americans (William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham) en route to colonize deep space -- with a saboteur onboard (Gary Oldman) -- knocked
"Titanic" out of first place at the box office after 15 weeks. But it didn't ultimately do well enough to warrant a sequel. Many were relieved.