A team of brave American astronauts are attaching a high-tech new scanning device to the Hubble telescope. Suddenly they get very bad news. The voice of Houston mission control (Ed Harris) informs them that the Russians have destroyed one of their satellites and the debris, turned into deadly missiles, is heading fast their way. You can always count on Hollywood to blame those pesky Russians for something 😉 .
Soon a terrifying situation unfolds – the impact is really catastrophic, killing everyone on the shuttle except Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a testy medical engineer first time in space, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a weathered pilot on his last mission. Those two are, all of a sudden, left drifting, with scant amount of oxygen and fuel, their shuttle completely destroyed, with the near-certain prospect of another dangerous debris hit. Only the distant International Space Station, it seems, offers a scant chance of survival. Will they both make it there, only one of them, or neither?
The premise of this move, although not exactly original, still remains elegant and simple: two people try to cheat imminent death in an extremely hostile environment while asking themselves serious questions, like whether their struggle is worth the effort at all. No alien monsters in sight, bloodthirsty or benign, no futurist technologies, no light sabers. Elegant, isn’t it? That’s why I wouldn’t call it a sci-fi movie, more a contemporary space thriller, something which might have happened here and now.
Sandra Bullock plays a scientific engineer, Dr Ryan Stone, who after just six months’ specialist Nasa training has been allowed into space because yes, they needed her so badly and they couldn’t have found anybody better. She is under the watchful supervision of Matt Kowalski, a genial and grizzled veteran pilot played by George Clooney, who with that assignment is saying good-bye to his career and the space.
Since its release, various specialist observers have unsportingly emerged to say that the science involved in Gravity is fanciful and wrong. They were, of course, right. No matter. Watching those fantastic shots of planet Earth as seen from high above I could suspend disbelief almost all the time. There was one exception: the idea that Stone’s training would have allowed her to be reasonably familiar with the control panels of Russian and Chinese spacecraft, marked by their Cyrillic and Chinese letterings, left me sceptical and her landing maneuver was screaming ‘fake’ rather loudly all the time. It helped a bit that Cuaron kept the movie to mere 91 minutes, decidedly short for a drama of cosmic proportions. Anyway I felt that much more than an hour-and-a-half of a panicky Sandra Bullock, and my reserves of emotional investment might have run out faster than her supply of oxygen. Brevity shouldn’t be underestimated.
It was also smart of the director to cast such distinctive stars. Most audiences know Sandra Bullock and George Clooney well enough to be able to visualize them as characters even in the moments when we catch only fleeting glimpses of their faces through those bulky visors of space helmets. Ryan, we learn early, is a grieving mother but rather than treat her loss as an excuse for despair, she uses the memory of her daughter to drive her on. Kowalski’s wife has left him; despite that (or maybe because of that) he behaves most of the time like a cross between Buzz Lightyear and your average pub jester. Still you can tell that deep down he resents the fact that nobody awaits his return *sniff, sniff*. What’s even worse, he knows fully well he is already too old to count on another chance to admire the gleaming, beautiful Earth from above. Oh well. Those ‘deep’ moments were the worst but they didn’t last long enough to become a real drag. I still think the movie misunderstands the incredible craft, physical stamina and mental acuity of those who go into space. That’s not to say astronaut’s can’t and don’t crack but when they do, they are very unlikely to go into ‘a lady in distress’ routine.
The ending made me think of Stanley Kubrick – as I’ve enjoyed a love-hate relationship with the Space Odyssey I mean it partially as a compliment AND partially as a complaint, go, figure. ;p
I liked this movie despite its shortcomings. It’s rare enough to watch a gripping space flick without aliens; it’s even rarer to get something maybe a tad simplistic but so refreshingly different than your ordinary action-packed space opera. I want to repeat that Gravity is hardly perfect but, with Hollywood recycling and “rebooting” the same stories and sights over and over again, it stands out in a positive way.