Gravity is an exciting and immersive experience. Some have credited the 3-D cinematography, but what really makes it engrossing is the intimacy the audience shares with the characters.
A Long Hike
PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
If you’ve missed the commercials, Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney; it takes place mostly in low earth orbit. Two shuttle astronauts are on a space walk when a wave of space debris hits. It’s a chain reaction — the shards from one destroyed satellite in turn destroyed more satellites, creating more shards, and so on. Their shuttle is destroyed by the junk tsunami and if they want to survive, they must try to reach a space station with an escape pod before their air runs out.
Clooney is well cast for his usual cool and confident persona, and Bullock gives a good performance as the excited, driven space newbie. Clooney plays Kowalski, a career astronaut on his last mission. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist and engineer on her first mission into space. When the debris storm hits, Kowalski keeps his head and helps talk Dr. Stone down from her panic attack. Only Kowalski has a propulsion system, so he tethers Dr. Stone to himself and they start the long hike to the International Space Station.
Director Alfonso Cuarón is present too. Even if you don’t usually notice cinematography, it’s hard to miss the amazing, drifting space “camera” as it moves from outside of Dr. Stones helmet, inside to show her point of view, then back out again. It’s part of an impressive 15-minute single “shot” (computer-assisted, of course) that opens the film.
Breathtaking, with Caveats
Gravity takes your breath away with vicarious tension. Maybe it’s because we only hear the characters through their microphones, placed very close to their mouths, making everything spoken sound like it’s whispered into our ears. Maybe it’s the thought of the vast expanse of cold, hostile space, peopled with only two souls. Or maybe it’s Cuarón POV camera. Whatever the reason, it’s a movie that makes you feel all the claustrophobia and panic that the characters feel. When the movie gives you a brief rest after an hour, you will realize just how engaged you were, and just how relieved you are to be able to catch a breath.
The physics of weightlessness are very convincing, and what we hear on the soundtrack is what one might hear in space — only what comes through the radio headset, or through vibrations of material in direct contact with “us.” That should please a large contingent of science fiction fans who love to nitpick movies like these.
That said, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey still stands as the most realistic space movie — at least until the head trip kicks in. Nit-pickers will find — have already found — details to complain about in Gravity. Michael J. Massimino, an astronaut, both praised and criticized the movie’s veracity, pointing out that the Hubble, the Shuttle, and the International Space Station are all in different orbits, unaccessible from each other without more fuel than a shuttle could carry. My own nagging voice, which mostly marvelled at the physics, wondered why, after establishing how awkward it is to stop in zero g, allowed character to grab something exactly (and only) when the screenplay demanded it. (Filmmaker friends have told me that “coincidence” is a four-letter word.)
At the Movies or In Space
I’ve heard a lot of superlatives used to describe Gravity, and I can almost agree with them. But I was disappointed that the movie wasn’t more pure about its amazing tale of survival. As lean and thrilling as it is, it could have trimmed its 2% fat. There is a dream sequence at the two-thirds mark that feels like the screenwriters messing up what had been an amazing story. That’s also about the same time that the Hollywood “character flaw” convention pays off less than seamlessly. The convention dictates that the conflict can’t be resolved until the protagonist overcomes his or her character flaw. For example, Mr. Uptight won’t get the girl and the promotion until he learns to loosen up and live a little. Something similar happens during the dream sequence of Gravity, which makes the film seem more conventional and less gripping — it reminds you you’re at the movies and not in space.
Still, none of these caveats should stop you from seeing Gravity, which is engaging, exciting, and excellent.
Gravity is less “pure” and maybe less admirable than2001: A Space Odyssey, but it’s much more exciting.