Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

10 Things to Know About Gravity

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

Director Alfonso Cua­rón’s latest film, Gravity, hits theaters today. The sci-fi flick is receiving rave reviews from critics and other filmmakers alike. Here are a few things you should know about the production. Warning: Spoilers below!

1. Its premise isn’t far-fetched.

Russia’s planned destruction of one of its own satellites kicks off the events in Gravity. Debris from that event destroys Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)’s shuttle and strands them in space. It might seem like no nation would ever do this, but, in fact, it’s actually happened: In 2007, China took out one of its own defunct weather satellites, sending a cloud of shrapnel “hurtling at nearly 16,000 mph along the main thoroughfare used by orbiting spacecraft,” according to Popular Mechanics. That debris joined the veritable garbage dump already orbiting above Earth, which consists of everything from rocket boosters to paint chips.

“On all of my missions, [we got] some warning from Mission Control about possible conjunctions—possible close approach by orbital debris,” former astronaut Tom Jones said at a special Popular Mechanics screening of Gravity. “You can see on radar everything that’s bigger than your fist. NORAD tracks it, and if you have to, you can maneuver the shuttle—even the [International Space Station (ISS)] has some small thrusters where it can nudge itself out of a critical path. So far we haven’t had any big impacts on human vehicles, but we’ve lost a couple of satellites from space debris.” Even small debris, traveling at those speeds, harms space infrastructure. Jones said the 2007 Chinese ASAT test doubled the debris risk to astronauts on the ISS. (Debris in space does eventually succumb to Earth’s orbit and burn up in the atmosphere, but depending on the size of the object and its orbital height, that process can take decades.)

The dangerous chain reaction of destruction seen in Gravity has a name: Kessler Syndrome, when there’s so much debris in space that everything crashes into everything else, creating more debris and therefore more collisions, rending space exploration too dangerous. It was a direct inspiration for Cua­rón and his son, Jonas, when they were writing the film.

2. It took 4.5 years to make…

Warner Bros.

Often, the only real things in a shot are Clooney's and Bullock’s faces. Everything else, from their space suits to Mother Earth, is computer generated. So Cua­rón and company created the entire film as animation first, working with sound effects, music, and lighting. “Then all that animation translated to actual camera moves and positions for the lighting and actors,” Cua­rón told Wired. “We did a whole exploration of the screenplay, every single moment; we made judgments about everything. Once we began shooting, we were constrained by the limitations of that programming.” The animation process lasted almost 2.5 years before they even began shooting with the actors.

3. ...and they had to invent new technology to do it.

“You want to pretend this is going to be easy,” Cua­rón told TheWrap. “Then it’s months and months of trying to figure out how. You come to the theory, and then you have to apply the theory, meaning to develop the technology.”

Among the new technology created for the film was a 12-wire rig devised by Special Effects supervisor Neil Corbould and his team that was controlled by puppeteers (from the play War Horse) to give the illusion that Bullock was floating through space; specialized rigs that could rotate or lift the actors at many different angles; and huge, computer-controlled robot arms typically used for car manufacturing that instead wielded cameras.

But the piece de resistance was what the filmmakers call the Light Box, a hollow cube with interior walls fitted with LEDs. The brainchild of Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki—who got the idea from LED lighting effects and projects at a concert—and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber, the Light Box was necessary because animators had to match up the lighting in the animation with the live action shoot perfectly. Cua­rón told ComingSoon that the finished box was raised on a six-foot-high platform and was 9 feet by 9 feet on the inside. It was fitted with 4096 LED bulbs that could show any CG image—the Earth, the sun, the stars—to get the correct lighting. According to The Wrap, about 60 percent of Gravity was shot in the box.

All of the technology could be synced with computers so that the filmmakers could move the universe around the actors.

4. Rejected strategies for filming "microgravity" included using wires and flying in the vomit comet.

Typically, wires have been used to suspend actors and give the illusion of floating, and Apollo 13 famously built sets and filmed inside a parabolic plane, which plummets for 25 seconds to create Zero Gravity. But though they were both considered, ultimately the filmmakers determined that neither would work because of Cuarón’s love of long takes (Gravity opens with a single, 15 minute shot). Bullock, who had signed on when the Zero G plane was still the plan, was relieved when it was scrapped. “I’m petrified of flying,” she told Vogue. “Plummeting out of the sky was not my idea of how I wanted to work with Alfonso Cua­rón. But at one point I sat down and said, ‘What is it about this movie that is telling me to get off my ass and get over something that has paralyzed me?’” Cua­rón said the system they eventually came up with was painful for Bullock, “but after not having to do the Vomit Comet, she was so happy, she didn’t care.”

5. Bullock trained to mimic movement in microgravity.

Her background as a dancer certainly helped Bullock pull off Gravity’s most difficult trick: Making it appear as though she was in microgravity. She worked with a pair of Australian dancers to retrain her body “from the neck down, to react and move as though it’s in Zero G, without the benefit of Zero G moving your body,” she told Collider. “Because everything that your body reacts to, with a push or a pull, and on the ground, is completely different than it is in Zero G.”

6. And she got advice straight from the ISS.

Bullock told Collider that Dr. Cady Coleman called her from the ISS to impart some advice. “I was able to literally ask someone who’s experiencing the things that I was trying to physically learn about how the body works, and what you do, and what I need to re-teach my body to do, physically, that cannot happen on earth,” Bullock said. “It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions. It was just a really coincidental, fortuitous thing that happened, over wine, that got me the final piece of the information that I needed.”

7. Cua­rón consulted with advisors, too.

The director very much wanted to make a film that was based in reality, with technology astronauts use today. (Even though the shuttle program has been discontinued, he made a decision to include it as a touchpoint for the audience.) He told ComingSoon that after he and Jonas wrote the first draft of the screenplay, they began involving experts because “we realized all the stupid things that we have described that would be completely implausible. Then, throughout the process, we kept on having advisors, not only NASA and astronauts and other people that are experts in different fields, but also physicists, trying to explain to us how objects react in micro-gravity and zero resistance. That was probably the toughest innovation, because what happens in micro-gravity and zero resistance is completely counter-intuitive.”

8. While taking liberties, the filmmakers tried to be pretty true to reality.

“We went through pains to make sure that the behavior of objects in micro-gravity and no resistance was as accurate as possible,” Cua­rón told the Huffington Post. At this same time, “this is not a documentary. We took certain liberties. Part of the liberties we took were in the sense of we would stretch the possibilities of certain things.”

There’s no sound in space, so Cua­rón mostly stuck to silence (there is a score, though). “The only sound you hear in space in the film is if, say, one of the characters is using a drill,” he told Wired. “Sandra’s character would hear the drill through the vibrations through her hand. But vibration itself doesn’t transmit in space—you can only hear what our characters are interacting with. I thought about keeping everything in absolute silence.” Another big no-no: Fires. “There’s no fire in space. At one point there’s an explosion, and the only fire you see is the bit that was inside the shuttle and then extinguished.”

9. Astronauts have given Gravity their seals of approval.

In the Hollywood Reporter, moon walker Buzz Aldrin wrote that “I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity. I was happy to see someone moving around the spacecraft the way George Clooney was. It really points out the degree of confusion and bumping into people, and when the tether gets caught, you're going to be pulled—I think the simulation of the dynamics was remarkable.”

At the Popular Mechanics screening, Jones called Gravity “probably the most realistic space film that I’ve seen,” pointing out that, in particular, the tethers outside the spacecraft in the film behaved as they do in real life. Jones told mental_floss that “When she’s moving inside the spacecraft, and she’s seeing things drifting around her, the helmet floating around, all of that was really realistic. That’s what was the most evocative of my experience.” Jones even watched a part of the ISS he helped build be destroyed, and said that the inside of the station was just as he remembered.

Not that the filmmakers got everything right: Aldrin notes that he and his crew weren't as carefree as Clooney's character, and Jones said that "in that initial collision, they’re bouncing around so much, your suit can’t withstand that—it would rupture," Jones said. "The movie would be very short! That's where they took some [creative] license." They also took a little license with the location of the orbiting spacecraft, placing the Hubble Space Telescope, the ISS, and the Chinese space lab Tiangong 1 all in the same orbit, when in fact, they're all in different orbits. In an interview with Space.com, the director said that "we did a draft where we tried to respect everything. Everything was just about explaining to the audiences all of that stuff, so we had to try to create a balance."

10. Even James Cameron loved it!

“I was stunned, absolutely floored,” the director and innovator told Variety. “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.”

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Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
The 10 Wildest Movie Plot Twists
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive (2001)
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

An ending often makes or breaks a movie. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as having the rug pulled out from under you, particularly in a thriller. But too many flicks that try to shock can’t stick the landing—they’re outlandish and illogical, or signal where the plot is headed. Not all of these films are entirely successful, but they have one important attribute in common: From the classic to the cultishly beloved, they involve hard-to-predict twists that really do blow viewers’ minds, then linger there for days, if not life. (Warning: Massive spoilers below.)

1. PSYCHO (1960)

Alfred Hitchcock often constructed his movies like neat games that manipulated the audience. The Master of Suspense delved headfirst into horror with Psycho, which follows a secretary (Janet Leigh) who sneaks off with $40,000 and hides in a motel. The ensuing jolt depends on Leigh’s fame at the time: No one expected the ostensible star and protagonist to die in a gory (for the time) shower butchering only a third of the way into the running time. Hitchcock outdid that feat with the last-act revelation that Anthony Perkins’s supremely creepy Norman Bates is embodying his dead mother.

2. PLANET OF THE APES (1968)

No, not the botched Tim Burton remake that tweaked the original movie’s famous reveal in a way that left everyone scratching their heads. The Charlton Heston-starring sci-fi gem continues to stupefy anyone who comes into its orbit. Heston, of course, plays an astronaut who travels to a strange land where advanced apes lord over human slaves. It becomes clear once he finds the decrepit remains of the Statue of Liberty that he’s in fact on a future Earth. The anti-violence message, especially during the political tumult of 1968, shook people up as much as the time warp.

3. DEEP RED (1975)

It’s not rare for a horror movie to flip the script when it comes to unmasking its killer, but it’s much rarer that such a film causes a viewer to question their own perception of the world around them. Such is the case for Deep Red, Italian director Dario Argento’s (Suspiria) slasher masterpiece. A pianist living in Rome (David Hemmings) comes upon the murder of a woman in her apartment and teams up with a female reporter to find the person responsible. Argento’s whodunit is filled to the brim with gorgeous photography, ghastly sights, and delirious twists. But best of all is the final sequence, in which the pianist retraces his steps to discover that the killer had been hiding in plain sight all along. Rewind to the beginning and you’ll discover that you caught an unknowing glimpse, too.

4. SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983)

Sleepaway Camp is notorious among horror fans for a number of reasons: the bizarre, stilted acting and dialogue; hilariously amateurish special effects; and ‘80s-to-their-core fashions. But it’s best known for the mind-bending ending, which—full disclosure—reads as possibly transphobic today, though it’s really hard to say what writer-director Robert Hiltzik had in mind. Years after a boating accident that leaves one of two siblings dead, Angela is raised by her aunt and sent to a summer camp with her cousin, where a killer wreaks havoc. In the lurid climax, we see that moody Angela is not only the murderer—she’s actually a boy. Her aunt, who always wanted a daughter, raised her as if she were her late brother. The final animalistic shot prompts as many gasps as cackles.

5. THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

The Usual Suspects has left everyone who watches it breathless by the time they get to the fakeout conclusion. Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey), a criminal with cerebral palsy, regales an interrogator in the stories of his exploits with a band of fellow crooks, seen in flashback. Hovering over this is the mysterious villainous figure Keyser Söze. It’s not until Verbal leaves and jumps into a car that customs agent David Kujan realizes that the man fabricated details, tricking the law and the viewer into his fake reality, and is in fact the fabled Söze.

6. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

No courtroom movie can surpass Primal Fear’s discombobulating effect. Richard Gere’s defense attorney becomes strongly convinced that his altar boy client Aaron (Edward Norton) didn’t commit the murder of an archbishop with which he’s charged. The meek, stuttering Aaron has sudden violent outbursts in which he becomes "Roy" and is diagnosed with dissociative identity disorder, leading to a not guilty ruling. Gere’s lawyer visits Aaron about the news, and as he’s leaving, a wonderfully maniacal Norton reveals that he faked the multiple personalities.

7. FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Edward Norton is no stranger to taking on extremely disparate personalities in his roles, from Primal Fear to American History X. The unassuming actor can quickly turn vicious, which led to ideal casting for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s adaptation of the Chuck Palahniuk novel. Fincher cleverly keeps the audience in the dark about the connections between Norton’s timid, unnamed narrator and Brad Pitt’s hunky, aggressive Tyler Durden. After the two start the titular bruising group, the plot significantly increases the stakes, with the club turning into a sort of anarchist terrorist organization. The narrator eventually comes to grips with the fact that he is Tyler and has caused all the destruction around him.

8. THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)

Early in his career, M. Night Shyamalan was frequently (perhaps a little too frequently) compared to Hitchcock for his ability to ratchet up tension while misdirecting his audience. He hasn’t always earned stellar reviews since, but The Sixth Sense remains deservedly legendary for its final twist. At the end of the ghost story, in which little Haley Joel Osment can see dead people, it turns out that the psychologist (Bruce Willis) who’s been working with the boy is no longer living himself, the result of a gunshot wound witnessed in the opening sequence.

9. THE OTHERS (2001)

The Sixth Sense’s climax was spooky, but not nearly as unnerving as Nicole Kidman’s similarly themed ghost movie The Others, released just a couple years later. Kidman gives a superb performance in the elegantly styled film from the Spanish writer-director Alejandro Amenábar, playing a mother in a country house after World War II protecting her photosensitive children from light and, eventually, dead spirits occupying the place. Only by the end does it become clear that she’s in denial about the fact that she’s a ghost, having killed her children in a psychotic break before committing suicide. It’s a bleak capper to a genuinely haunting yarn.

10. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

David Lynch’s surrealist movies may follow dream logic, but that doesn’t mean their plots can’t be readily discerned. Mulholland Drive is his most striking work precisely because, in spite of its more wacko moments, it adds up to a coherent, tragic story. The mystery starts innocently enough with the dark-haired Rita (Laura Elena Harring) waking up with amnesia from a car accident in Los Angeles and piecing together her identity alongside the plucky aspiring actress Betty (Naomi Watts). It takes a blue box to unlock the secret that Betty is in fact Diane, who is in love with and envious of Camilla (also played by Harring) and has concocted a fantasy version of their lives. The real Diane arranges for Camilla to be killed, leading to her intense guilt and suicide. Only Lynch can go from Nancy Drew to nihilism so swiftly and deftly.

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Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
5 Bizarre Comic-Con News Stories from Years Past
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC
Jesse Grant, Getty Images for AMC

At its best, San Diego Comic-Con is a friendly place where like-minded people can celebrate their pop culture obsessions, and each other. And no one can make fun of you, no matter how lazy your cosplaying might be. You might think that at its worst, it’s just a series of long lines of costumed fans and small stores crammed into a convention center. But sometimes, throwing together 100,000-plus people from around the world in what feels like a carnival-type atmosphere where anything goes can have less than stellar results. Here are some highlights from past Comic-Con-tastrophes.

1. MAN IN HARRY POTTER T-SHIRT STABS ANOTHER MAN IN THE FACE—WITH A PEN

In 2010, two men waiting for a Comic-Con screening of the Seth Rogen alien comedy Paul got into a very adult argument about whether one of them was sitting too close to the other. Unable to come to a satisfactory conclusion with words, one man stabbed the other in the face with a pen. According to CNN, the attacker was led away wearing handcuffs and a Harry Potter T-shirt. In the aftermath, some Comic-Con attendees dealt with the attack in an oddly fitting way: They cosplayed as the victim, with pens protruding from bloody eye sockets.

2. MEMORABILIA THIEVES INVADE NEW YORK

Since its founding in 2006, New York Comic Con has attracted a few sticky-fingered attendees. In 2010, a man stole several rare comics from vendor Matt Nelson, co-founder of Texas’s Worldwide Comics. Just one of those, Whiz Comics No. 1, was worth $11,000, according to the New York Post. A few years later, in 2014, someone stole a $2000 “Dunny” action figure, which artist Jon-Paul Kaiser had painted during the event for Clutter magazine. And those are just the incidents that involved police; lower-scale cases of toys and comics disappearing from booths are an increasingly frustrating epidemic, according to some. “Comic Con theft is an issue we all sort of ignore,” collector Tracy Isenhour wrote on the blog of his company, Needless Essentials, in 2015. “I am here to tell you no more. It’s time for this garbage to stop."

3. CATWOMAN SAVES THE DAY


John Sciulli/Getty Images for Xbox

Adrianne Curry, winner of the first cycle of America’s Next Top Model, has made a career of chasing viral fame. Ironically, it was at Comic-Con in 2014 that Curry did something truly worthy of attention—though there wasn’t a camera in sight. Dressed as Catwoman, she was posing with fans alongside her friend Alicia Marie, who was dressed as Tigra. According to a Facebook post Marie wrote at the time, a fan tried to shove his hands into her bikini bottoms. She screamed, the man ran off, and Curry jumped to action. She “literally took off after dude WITH her Catwoman whip and chased him down, beat his a**,” Marie wrote. “Punched him across the face with the butt of her whip—he had zombie blood on his face—got on her costume.”

4. MAN POSES AS FUGITIVE-SEEKING INVESTIGATOR TO GET INTO VIP ROOM

The lines at Comic-Con are legendary, so one Utah man came up with a novel way to try and skip them altogether. In 2015, Jonathon M. Wall tried to get into Salt Lake Comic Con’s exclusive VIP enclave (normally a $10,000 ticket) by claiming he was an agent with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, and needed to get into the VIP room “to catch a fugitive,” according to The San Diego Union Tribune. Not only does that story not even come close to making sense, it also adds up to impersonating a federal agent, a crime to which Wall pleaded guilty in April of 2016 and which carried a sentence of up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Just a few months later, prosecutors announced that they were planning to reduce his crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

5. MAN WALKS 645 MILES TO COMIC-CON, DRESSED AS A STORMTROOPER, TO HONOR HIS LATE WIFE


Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Disney

In 2015, Kevin Doyle walked 645 miles along the California coast to honor his late wife, Eileen. Doyle had met Eileen relatively late in life, when he was in his 50s, and they bonded over their shared love of Star Wars (he even proposed to her while dressed as Darth Vader). However, she died of cancer barely a year after they were married. Adrift and lonely, Doyle decided to honor her memory and their love of Star Wars by walking to Comic-Con—from San Francisco. “I feel like I’m so much better in the healing process than if I’d stayed home,” he told The San Diego Union Tribune.

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