Opening title card of the film

The one question that was on my mind when I chose to write about Gravity was: “why am I going to watch Gravity with no sound, even though it won Academy Awards for sound?” I first envisioned watching this movie from beginning to end without the use of sound or subtitles, something that is very important in this film. The film has only a few actors with speaking roles in the masterpiece of cinema that is Gravity. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a brilliant engineer who is tasked with fixing the Hubble Space Telescope, in space! Also in the cast is George Clooney as astronaut Matt Kowalski, who is on his final mission in space. But the dialogue is only a small part of the sound in the film; Bullock is alone throughout most of the film and does not have anyone to talk to except herself and trying to contact ‘Houston,’ voiced by Ed Harris. But I am not doing the whole film for this project. I instead decided after watching the spectacular opening long-take, which takes over twelve minutes, to only do the opening scene from the movie.

(Below is the opening long-take from Gravity, give it a watch to see what I am talking about!)

As said previously, the award-winning sound is what makes this movie’s tension and suspense., even though it is still there without it. But taking that sound away, all you are left with is the stunning visuals of the film, and a narrative that is easy to follow, even without the use of sound. The sound that would be normally heard are very unusual. As said in the opening of Gravity, which you can see below: “There is nothing to carry sound [in space]” (00:00:24). Sound in the film comes in from what is heard from inside the helmets of the characters, for example, any dialogue can be heard, breathing, noises coming from inside the helmet, and the most unusual, the vibration of contact with another object.

“No Sound”

A narrative in film is usually told by two characters speaking to each other. Using dialogue, the viewer can begin to understand what the story is and what it is about. But take away the use of dialogue from a film, what are you left with? Some moving images that make little to no sense. The genius of Alfonso Cuarón lets the viewer understand what is going on by just the beautiful imagery alone. From the opening shot, I could tell that we were in space. Seeing the blue and white of the Earth contrasting against the void of space. Even without the use of sound, I can see the beauty of the shot. The lighting here lets me focus on something coming into view from the distance, something white and moving against the darkness of space. A couple of minutes later, I see Kowalski helping Stone with fixing the Hubble Space Telescope, while Kowalski enjoys himself, as evident by his smiling. But his smiles quickly fade away and we see him urging Stone to stop fixing the Telescope. Without warning, the camera turns and debris begins flying overhead. There are many tiny pieces of debris and the camera pans over to a third astronaut, and he appears to be struck by a piece of debris. While Kowalski heads over to help him, chaos ensues as the debris rips apart the Explorer shuttle and Stone, who is attached to some mechanical arm, is thrust into space, with nothing in sight but darkness.

Opening shot of movie, just the beauty of the Earth
Chaos ensues once debris hits the shuttle.

The twelve minute long-take is exhilarating with sound and without it. Watching the scene without sound gives you an almost realistic feeling that you are in space, where sound does not exist. The camera movement leading up to the destruction of Explorer was crisp and smooth. When the debris finally reaches Explorer, the camera movements feel more sporadic, almost panic-like. The camera focuses on Stone as she struggles to free herself from the mechanical arm that is bringing her back to Explorer. The camera stays tight with a close-up of her face, then her arms attempting to undo the strap, until she finally does and the camera remains stationary as she flies further into space, which makes the viewer think that it might be the end of Stone.

Dr. Ryan Stone after debris has hit the shuttle.
Dr. Ryan Stone floating away from the camera, no hope in sight.

Watching Gravity, it feels like they shot the movie in space. The visual effects of the film are what makes all the scenes so tense. Most of the images in the film are Computer Generated Images (CGI), which allows creativity to form with each frame of the film. Sandra Bullock’s face is a real part and some minimal amounts of scenery and props, but the film is mostly composed of CGI that further the story of this film. Without the sound, the images still form a natural story: a struggle for survival and escape.

(Below is a behind-the-scenes video where sound and visual effects are talked about. Cinematography is also mentioned.)

Alfonso Cuarón plays a lot with contrasting shots. The three primary colours in the film are white, black, and blue. Many shots have the contrast of having space on one half, and white or blue in the other. The most prominent example of this is when there is a close-up of Kowalski’s face and you see through the reflection the beauty of the Earth, and a few moments later, the fear that is space. These contrasting shots play with emotions of the viewer and foreshadows the impending doom.

Matt Kowalski with Earth primary focus.
Matt Kowalski with space primary focus.

Watching Gravity without sound gave it a surreal feeling. I had seen the movie two times in theatres, a rarity for me. One of these times was in IMAX, which was the perfect way to watch the movie. But for some reason, watching it without sound made the film feel more claustrophobic. There is no sound to ground the movie in any reality, just the vastness and emptiness of space. I felt the struggles of the main characters, even without hearing the panicked dialogue or the heavy breathing. Watching Gravity with no sound allowed me to appreciate the beauty of the imagery in the film. Seeing space with thousands of stars, the Earth with its blue and white, and the exhilaration of watching what feels like real astronauts in space, it made me feel awestruck.

I do not think many films can have the power of silence be a strength to its filmmaking. Sound is used predominately in most films, so many films cannot be seen without the use sound or subtitles. Gravity is a rare exception to the rule from its beautiful imagery, down to the feeling of panic that I felt while watching it. When the visuals can also tell a story without sound, then I know I have found something magical.

By: Sheldon Dugas

Works Cited

Gravity. Directed by, performances by Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and Ed Harris, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.

Images provide by: http://movie-screencaps.com/gravity-2013/