Astronauts in peril: ‘Gravity’ soars through danger above the Earth

October 8, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Oct. 8, 2013

As the new feature film Gravity opens —

Actually, before I complete that sentence, a caveat. I walked into the screening about 10 minutes after the scheduled start. I’m accustomed to the lights first going down 10 minutes after the ostensible start time, which is followed by one or two theater promotions and at least three movie trailers. Instead, when I entered the theater on Saturday night, Gravity had already begun. Based on the expository dialogue that I observed, I’m pretty sure I missed no more than five minutes of the film. But in fact, this write-up will be based upon a partial viewing.

As the new feature film Gravity opens, medical engineer Ryan Stone is adding a device to the Hubble Space Telescope. Matt Kowalski, commander of the space shuttle Explorer, observes. This is Kowalski’s last flight, and he restlessly circles the scientific satellite with his jetpack, tracking how much time remains until he breaks a record for space walks.

The equipment Stone is installing malfunctions. But moments later, the Explorer and its crew learn that they have much more serious issues. An incident involving a Russian satellite is spreading a vast array of deadly, fast-moving debris. NASA mission control orders the Explorer to break orbit immediately.

Seconds afterward, a zooming piece of wreckage knocks Stone loose from the space shuttle. She flies into the dark void, tumbling wildly. Kowalski maneuvers to intercept her.

What follows — the bulk of this intense 90-minute movie — is the story of the pair’s struggle to survive the swarms of debris that are wreaking havoc above the Earth. They must also contend with dwindling oxygen and fuel supplies as well as the naïveté and negativity of Stone, who is on her first trip into space.

Stone is the center of the movie; the character, played by Sandra Bullock in an unflattering short haircut, serves as a proxy for the audience. In literary terms, she is like Dante, who is ushered through hell by Beatrice in The Divine Comedy.

The genders here are reversed, of course, with Kowalski guiding the visitor through a strange, other-worldly realm. The mission commander is a role perfectly suited for — and, indeed, inhabited by — George Clooney. The veteran astronaut is calm, collected, charming and competent. He barely breaks a sweat despite contending with an epic crisis and (rather literally) confronting death.

Gravity’s story is compelling, and its visual style is utterly amazing. This is no surprise, given that the picture is helmed by Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican director; his past credits include the excellent Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as well as the brilliant Children of Men, an Earthbound dystopian science fiction movie based on a P.D. James novel.

Most of Gravity’s dazzling special effects are reserved for the end, as the stakes are raised and the chances for survival inexorably diminish. But its cinematography is at its most eye-popping at the film’s start (near start?), as the camera prowls space above the Explorer cargo bay in one long, fluid tracking shot. Other long shots take place early in the film, smoothly moving us in and out of Stone’s point of view. The director and his chief cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki — a regular Cuarón collaborator who was also cinematographer for Terrence Malick’s fascinating Tree of Life — have created something technically and visually astounding.

Unfortunately, although Bullock turns in a fine performance, her character’s emotional narrative did not entirely hang together for me. That I lay at the feet of Cuarón and his son and co-scriptwriter, Jonás Cuarón. They’ve given Stone a tragic past and an internal conflict, but she remains a character in a movie without ever quite seeming to become a fully fledged person.

I’m a long-standing science fiction buff, so Gravity was right in my wheelhouse. It reminded me of a less fantastical Solaris — the 2002 Steven Soderbergh remake, that is, which also starred Clooney. His character in that film, in fact, resembles Stone in Gravity: Each astronaut is vulnerable, both because of the dangerous situations in which they find themselves and because of the deep wounds inflicted on them by the deaths of loved ones.

But Soderbergh’s Solaris was not very well received. Yes, the story was interesting and the imagery appealing, but on an emotional level, the movie was rather cool — and these are all characteristics it shares with Gravity. Those who don’t identify with (or who are bored by) Stone will likely be find this movie tiresome.

Frankly, I myself grew slightly impatient with the film’s structure: Endure a crisis, solve the crisis, pause until the next crisis and repeat, all in the company of the same individuals. There was one plot twist I saw coming and one, thankfully, that I did not.

Ultimately, however, Gravity’s virtues outweigh its flaws. Based on early box-office returns, audiences seem to agree, which surprises me somewhat — and suggests that I may underestimate Bullock’s and the story’s appeal.

Although its technical accomplishments arguably outpace its artistic achievements, Gravity is an amazing journey. Every science or science fiction aficionado should run, not walk, to see it as soon as possible.

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