Gravity, despite pulling aspects from a variety of familiar film styles, is a movie that feels unique, which is something with great appeal to me these days. It has much in common with Open Water, the 2003 film about a couple who are left behind while scuba diving, but it also borrows heavily from a variety of disaster movies where people are trapped or stranded and have to improvise a way to survive. And of course, it has a lot in common with Apollo 13, including the use of Ed Harris as the voice of mission control. (It even blatantly steals and idea from WALL-E and contains obvious references to Star Wars and Alien.) But its tone is drastically different from all of those films. Where those movies have a frantic aspect to them, with every moment devoted to the heroes solving the next problem or overcoming the next obstacle, Gravity has a peacefulness to it that sets it apart. And while there are moments of terror and suspense, the calm peaceful moments are what will stick with you after you’ve left the theater.
First time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) sits attached to the space shuttle Explorer’s robotic arm, attempting to repair the communication systems of the Hubble Space Telescope. She’s fighting the ill effects of zero gravity, trying to keep her lunch down while she works. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an experienced astronaut on his final mission, zooms happily around the space shuttle and telescope testing a new maneuvering unit while trying to tell colorful stories from his past to mission control, despite the fact that they’ve heard them all before. The other astronaut on the spacewalk finishes his work on the HST and goofs off while Stone struggles to diagnose the problem with the communication system. Suddenly the get the abort command from mission control, who warns that debris from a satellite the Russians just destroyed with a missile is headed their way, posing not only an immediate danger to the shuttle and crew but also promising to disrupt all communications as it proceeds through orbit destroying other satellites.
Before they can even begin to reenter the shuttle, the debris is upon them, ripping through the shuttle and through the other astronauts before snapping the shuttle’s robotic arm and sending Stone spinning out into space. She completely loses her bearings and her head, as Kowalski shouts instructions to her over the radio. She eventually detaches from the arm and focuses enough to give him her location, and he maneuvers to her and they tie themselves together. They head back to the shuttle, but find that it’s too damaged to get them home and that the rest of the crew is dead. Their only choice is to head for the International Space Station in the hopes of using one of their Soyuz modules as an escape vehicle to return to earth. But Stone’s oxygen is down to 8%, and Kowalski’s thrusters have a limited amount of fuel.
To discuss the plot any more would only serve to spoil it, as everything so far takes place in the very beginning of the movie and was heavily featured in the trailers. However, the plot is hardly the point of a film like this. In fact, I would say the story is actually fairly predictable and hits all of the beats you’d expect it to. Every time I thought Gravity would offer up something surprising, as it sets the stage for several daring story moments before backing off of them, it would instead return back to my expectations. If you’ve ever watched a disaster film, you’ll see everything coming long before it arrives. Gravity doesn’t set out to surprise, so it’s not fair to fault the film over this, but I would love to see a film that is this daring with its storytelling be equally as daring with the story it’s telling.
However, as I said, the story is not the important thing in Gravity. Instead the focus is all on the characters and their journey, specifically Stone’s. Where Apollo 13 was all about the extraordinary efforts of the astronauts and the ground crew to get those three men back to Earth safely, Gravity is about the effects that such a disaster would have not only on the mind but on the spirit. Stone is a biomedical engineer whose young daughter died in a random accident on the playground at school, and it has obviously had a profound impact on her. She is quiet and withdrawn, where Kowalski is brash and outgoing. It’s fascinating to watch Stone’s internal journey. In the early moments of the disaster, she constantly apologizes for every move she makes, in a way that feels heartbreakingly real. It’s a perfectly convincing reaction to a catastrophe of this magnitude, and it really paints a picture of Stone’s personality and the state of her spirit at the moment. She not only feels incapable of dealing with the situation, but is also unwilling to. Kowalski is willing to play rescuer and anchor, but he knows that in order for her to survive, she has to want to live and be willing to fight. He tries to push her in the right direction, getting her to open up about her life as a way to distract her from their plight and help her find a reason to go on.
Clooney’s performance is full of the charm we’ve come to expect from the actor, but the role of Kowalski is designed to serve as a catalyst for Stone more than to stand on its own as a fully fleshed-out character. It’s Stone’s movie that we’re watching, and Bullock absolutely shines in the role, giving her most subtle and textured performance to date. It’s amazing to me to see a big budget science fiction film with George Clooney in the cast that has a 49 year old woman as the lead. Considering that women beyond their thirties are often relegated to the sidelines in movies of this type, where the men usually serve as the heroes, it’s wonderful to see Bullock get this opportunity, even if she was the fourth or fifth actress attached to the role. Stone is a deep, rounded character, who goes through the entire range of possible emotions in her journey, and it’s a marvel to behold. She’s a strong female character without having to act like a stereotype of “manliness”, which women in these roles are often forced into. It’s one of the most human performances I’ve seen in a long time, without having to resort to gimmicks play up certain emotions. It touches on love, loss, spirituality and the meaning of life, but never in a way that feels cliché or forced.
Director Alfonso Cuaron (of Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Y Tu Mama Tambien fame) has crafted a film that feels unlike any other. It’s filled with amazing effects (which probably are even more impressive in 3D, but I wouldn’t know) that seem totally believable while also immediately terrifying. The camera spins and swoops from wide shots of the destruction in tight on Stone’s face, to inside her visor looking out at the chaos and back again. His camera movements have always been mesmerizing (remember that long take from Children of Men), and here he has no physical limits on his imagination. He captures the terror of fighting for survival in space with his use of sound, keeping space silent (though unfortunately having to put an explanation at the beginning of the film so audiences don’t complain) while filling the theater with Stone’s panicked breathing and radio communications. There’s a beauty to the visuals even in the most destructive of moments, as the sense of movement in space has a balletic quality that you can’t find on Earth, while the planet looms beneath the astronauts and the empty void of space menaces from above. But the sound design and the camera movements can turn those images from stunningly pretty and serene to intense and back again as the story demands. Cuaron and his son Jonas wrote the screenplay together, and it gives Stone as a character room to breathe and while never letting the audience forget the immediacy of the danger she faces.
Space can be one of the most beautiful of locations, offering a new perspective on our world and our lives as we look down from above, completely removed from the gravity that anchors us to the world. The silence and the lack of tethers can be wonderfully freeing, both for those looking for an exciting experience and those wanting to escape from the reality of the ground. Without the physical and metaphorical weight of life on Earth, things seem easier. Yet death is waiting right outside the cloth and glass of that spacesuit or the thin metal hull of that space station, and the beauty and peace can come with a price and things can go wrong more quickly there than anywhere down on the planet. While escape from the things holding you down here on Earth may seem ideal, it’s those things that let you know you’re alive. Gravity appreciates the beauty and perspective of space, while never letting the audience forget the danger waiting just outside, nor the necessity of gravity in our lives.