“Let me tell you a story.”
Remember the tagline in Alien? “In space no one can hear you scream”. Gravity begins, appropriately enough, with complete silence. We’re treated to a rather spectacular view of the Earth from orbit. Eventually chatter begins to intrude upon our revelry. We soon meet the crew of a space shuttle mission to do repair work on the Hubble telescope. We quickly learn that this is the final mission for retiring astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, although I certainly consider it a bad sign when he’s told to enjoy his last walk. He’s acting as a mentor of sorts to younger astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock. There are others on the mission, but we’re treated to very little time with them. In a short time, they won’t really matter.
All is going along pretty much routine. Clooney’s telling tall tales to both Ryan and the “voice” from Houston, which is instantly recognizable as Ed Harris. Things begin to get a bit tense when it’s learned that the Russians have torpedoed one of their satellites, but there’s apparently no cause for alarm. Obviously these guys didn’t watch the IMAX special Space Junk and don’t know about the Kessler syndrome. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that is. You’re about to find out, although they do not use the term in the movie. Needless to say the stuff hits the fan when it’s discovered that the collision has initiated a chain reaction of other collisions, causing a huge debris cloud to charge in the direction of the shuttle and the astronauts like a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico. Suddenly, routine turns to panic as the workers attempt to disengage from their work and attempt to get to safety before the debris gets to them. I don’t think I’m revealing too many spoilers here when I tell you that they’re not going to make it. After a thrashing that destroys the shuttle, Matt and Ryan are the only ones left alive. The problem is they have nothing but their space suits. The shuttle’s trashed, and they don’t have much air, let alone a ride home.
Sacrifices must be made, and Ryan finds herself alone. She’s got to make it to the International Space Station and then to a Chinese station in order to find a way to get back to Earth. Most of the movie chronicles her struggle to do just that.
At first glance Gravity appears to be nothing more than a typical shipwreck kind of film. Certainly all of the good elements of that kind of movie are present, with the possible exception of a soccer ball for company. But, this shipwreck movie is incredibly claustrophobic. We are reminded in the beginning that life in space is impossible. Ryan survives by the grace of a few layers of fabric and a glass faceplate. That’s where the beauty of the whole thing starts coming together. Director Alfonso Cuaron makes excellent use of his minimalist environment and delivers one of the best films of the year.
The presence of Ed Harris, at least in voice, is a wonderful tribute to two of the best space films to have ever been made. He’s a veteran of both The Right Stuff where he portrayed John Glenn and Apollo 13, a bit of a disaster-in-space film itself. But this is not either of those films. They both treated space exploration as a grand adventure, the final frontier. Gravity treats space as more of a routine job. There’s little wonder in these characters as characterized by Matt’s silly banter in the beginning of the film. These folks are punching a clock, a clock that just so happens to be a few thousand miles in space. One of the reasons the two shuttle disasters had the impact that they did is because space orbit exploration has become a bit mundane to the general public. Cuaron takes advantage of that attitude and sets us at perfect ease at the start. He thrills us with incredible vistas of the Earth and lulls us with the casual atmosphere of the mission. Matt likes to start his tall stories with “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission”. The possibility of a catastrophic failure is remote enough to be the subject of humor…until it’s not. Some may even find this intro segment to be a bit boring. It’s all part of Cuaron’s trap, and I fell into it just like the rest of the lambs to slaughter. I was so busy admiring the view that I almost forgot that things were going to go bad…really bad at any moment. Credit a good director for making it a shock when he delivers something we knew was coming before the lights went dark in the theater.
At its core, this is really not a space film at all. It’s a survival movie that happens to take place in the harsh environment of space. Frankly, we could have been in the remote Arctic and gotten the same effect. And so no matter how spectacular and realistic these effects might be, it’s got to be up to the actors, or in this case actor, to carry the real weight. Who would have guessed that Sandra Bullock had that kind of weight? I have developed an entirely new respect for her after this performance. I can’t remember when I was so completely with a movie character. Her performance is both emotionally charged and quite physical. You are inside that suit with her the entire time. That’s the real magic of a movie done this well. How often do you experience a movie rather than merely settle for being a spectator? There’s something raw and visceral here that I’m not sure I completely understand myself. It’s not going to happen, of course, but if there’s justice in this world her performance is worthy of at least a Best Actress nomination. You can feel and hear every breath.
Nitpickers are going to point out just how unrealistic some of the science is here. OK, so let’s just call it science fiction if that makes you feel better about it. Most of it I found easy to ignore. There’s an ending that really did ruin it a bit for me, but up until that time consider me belief-suspended and along for the ride.
A space film should have aliens, and this one does. It’s where you least expected to find it. We are the aliens here. It’s not an environment we can survive in without a lot of help. It’s that fragile nature of survival that keeps you on the edge of your seat. You don’t have to make a huge mistake here and it’s all over.
The 3D is quite engaging. There’s little reference in space. The 3D adds that perspective and completely sells the illusion. There are times when the camera spins as a character is in some kind of uncontrolled spiral and it’s quite unnerving. I expect more than a few audience members will experience some nausea. The only time I was really annoyed with the look was when we’re looking through someone’s face glass. The debris was too realistic. I kept reaching to clean my glasses. But the rest of the stuff is phenomenal. The floating debris is reach-out-and-touch quality. I was particularly impressed with a few shots where Ryan is crying and the tears turn into those water globules we might see in space.
It’s the surprise winner of the year. It’s not Open Water in space. Well, it is if open water had been, you know… really good. There also don’t appear to be any sharks in space. This one’s a must see. “Do it now!”