Top Film Industry Stories of 2013: #1
Gravity Defies
By David Mumpower
January 12, 2014

Is this bad? This seems bad.

The International Space Station cost approximately $160 billion to build and sustain over the years. Sandra Bullock took one job there, and the entire place was destroyed. Hopefully, she employed the ol’ Homer Simpson defense, “It’s my first day.” Then again, she could have blamed her buddy, George Clooney. If he hadn’t spent so much time jet-packing around the space shuttle, many lives could have been saved.

No matter who receives the blame during the countless impending international tribunals, the spectacle of watching multiple space-worthy vessels destroyed is an event that will leave a lasting impression on the film industry. Stating the obvious, something you have probably known since early October, there was no defying Gravity this year. It is undeniably the biggest Film Industry Story of 2013.

What makes Gravity worthy of such acclaim? Let’s start with the basics. At its core, the Alfonso Cuarón production is an exercise in minimalism similar to Duncan Jones’ Moon. Ignoring the differences in budget (Gravity cost a factor of 20 more than Moon), the casting style is similar. Moon featured only a handful of actors while asking Sam Rockwell to appear in almost every sequence. With Gravity, Sandra Bullock is onscreen for almost the entirety of the film. Without her, the star of the movie would be the emptiness of space, and I mention that because even with America’s Sweetheart in the lead role, the void is still lurking in every shot as an unwelcome co-star.

The premise of the movie evokes the tagline of the Ridley Scott 1979 classic, Alien. “In Space, no one can hear you scream.” The events of Gravity focus upon Dr. Riley Stone, a woman who has a very bad day. Her initial mission aboard the Space Shuttle comes unraveled when a spacewalk goes awry. Debris from a destroyed missile heads her direction, and it has attained a velocity that makes bullets seem slower than molasses.

By now, everyone reading this is well aware of what happens next. Dr. Stone struggles for survival with only Clooney’s Matt Kowalski to guide her. And he is more consumed with breaking the standing record for space flight. Stone is largely alone in space as debris attempts to kill her.

The story of Gravity is no different than any other solo survival films such as Cast Away, 127 Hours and Buried. The key selling point is that all of the characters involved in those movies at least have the reliability of nature in their favor. In space, every law of physics that people are trained since birth to understand is fundamentally altered. Any cut in a suit, loss of oxygen or movement in a direction away from a man-made vessel is potentially fatal.

We know about all of this danger because the two main characters in the movie both experience their fair share of each form of jeopardy. Gravity is a calculated, manipulative attempt to induce more fear than any science fiction movie has ever managed in 90 minutes before. And it succeeds to a heroic degree.

Gravity is what BOP describes as a perfect project. Out of the 294 critics on Rotten Tomatoes who have reviewed the movie, an astounding 286 have given it a positive recommendation. That is a fresh rating of 97%. Among movies with at least 100 reviews, only four titles scored higher. On IMDb, over 200,000 viewers have given Gravity a composite score of 8.3, one of the best 120 scores ever on the site.

The box office performance for Gravity is equally impressive. The movie opened to $55.8 million in October. In the process, Gravity claimed the best debut of 2013 for a new property, one that is neither a sequel nor adapted from other source material. An almost incomprehensible 80% of that revenue came from 3D and IMAX 3D showings. The visuals of Gravity are among the best in the 3D era, right there with Avatar and Life of Pi at the top of the list. Audiences responded to this rare incentive to upgrade their tickets. In the process, Gravity earned more revenue at the highest possible ticket prices. 20% of the opening weekend bottom line of Gravity was directly attributed to IMAX 3D, the largest such skew in box office history.

The other key aspect of having an IMAX worthy production is that those films tend to have better staying power than normal titles. IMAX-exclusive contracts are a license to print money for studios, as is reflected in the holdover appeal of Gravity. The average $55 million opener should be expected to finish in the $150-$175 million range. Gravity finished with a domestic tally of $256.2 million, dwarfing that amount by $75-$100 million. In the process, it became the biggest movie in the careers of both George Clooney AND Sandra Bullock, two of the living legends of our industry.

Gravity’s appeal was not limited to North America, either. Innumerable countries have contributed to the International Space Station during its 15 years of existence. This global desire to witness the destruction, an otherworldly version of monument porn, proved to be quite lucrative. Gravity, the movie with only two stars, garnered an additional $415 million abroad. To put that performance into perspective, consider that only two other entirely new properties, Pacific Rim and The Croods, earned at least $350 million in global revenue. And neither of those approached Gravity in terms of overall popularity. With a worldwide take of $670 million against a $100 million production budget, Gravity also claims one of the best returns on investment of any mega-priced blockbuster released in 2013.

When a movie goes into production, the people involved hope for a series of fortuitous events. One is for the movie to be immediately popular, another is for it to have lasting appeal in theaters as well as become an instant classic, a third is to be critically praised, the biggest is for it to be financially rewarding and the final one is for it to be a potential awards contender. That is the basic checklist for grading movie greatness. Looking at this scorecard, Gravity is poised to score a 100 and thereby become the Valedictorian of the 2013 movie class. All it needs is a couple of Academy Awards to seal the deal. Even without those, the unmistakable quality and popularity of Gravity define it as the greatest cinematic triumph of 2013 as well as the Film Industry Story of the Year.