Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Your first indicator that Gravity is going to be something of an unorthodox film starts well before any actors appear on screen. The audience is first shown a bizarre variation on the classic Warner Brothers logo, this time in crisp black and white. This leads into the film’s crawl, a sort of on-screen mission statement:
At 372 miles above the Earth,
There is nothing to carry sound
No air pressure
Life in space is impossible
You hear the idea of movies as “roller coasters” scoffed at, but I think that’s actually exactly what movies are designed to be. When you watch a movie, you’re experiencing something designed to specific elicit emotional reactions. Excitement. Fear. Sadness. Anger. Hope. These things aren’t too far off from the thrill and terror of a sudden drop or loop. A rubber skeleton popping out to grab you in a haunted house. If it’s a good movie, we can’t quite see the strings. Or maybe we don’t care that we can. That’s why these things stay with us.
With those opening lines, Gravity is pretty upfront about the kind of ride you’ll be on. Sit back, make sure your safety bar is in place. See you in 90 minutes.
There’s so much to love and admire about Gravity, Cuarón’s first film in seven years. In a broad sense, you have to appreciate that it’s an effects-driven film with indie sensibilities: Cuarón presents to us a film with minimal story and actors and this is a deliberate choice rather than a consequence of studio mandates or poor writing. Gravity is much like a stage play in many scenes, in a good way. We’re given exactly enough to follow and engage with what’s on screen: Medical engineer/rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on a mission in earth’s orbit to implement a newly developed space telescope along with old hand space jockey Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and a small crew. The destruction of a Russian spy satellite causes a chain reaction that sends a wave of deadly debris in orbit. The crew, save for Stone and Kowalski, are killed almost instantly and the pair are left stranded with few remaining supplies. What follows is their attempts to stay alive and get home.
Like I said, simple premise. And I think that’s exactly why this movie works so well. There are no flashbacks to life on Earth, no dramatic cuts to mission control. Just two people trying to survive in the terrible emptiness of space.
While Gravity boasts some incredible visuals (the sequence early in the film where Stone spins through space and we spin with her; Stone and Kowalski’s attempts to leapfrog from their ruined spacecraft to the International Space Station; the shots of Earth *alone*), it absolutely puts its characters at the forefront.
Sandra Bullock’s performance, much of which is Stone talking to herself in a cramped space, is compelling even without the Tom-Hanks-In-Castaway overacting hysterics you normally find in these kind of movies. Ryan Stone shares more than a little DNA with Sigourney Weaver’s iconic sci-fi heroine Ellen Ripley: a woman with little to live for who has to rise to the occasion in the face of impossible odds. When Kowalski tries to encourage her to think of the things she has to live to return to, she can’t. She is a mother without a child, her sole activities are going to work and driving home.
It’s in moments of humor and vulnerability that Gravity really shines; Stone’s perfectly timed, exasperated scream of “I HATE SPACE!”, a long take of her shedding her space suit for the first time. The scene where Stone, trapped and freezing, believes she’s going to die and takes solace in the radio static-y howls of a stranger’s dog. She howls with it.
I don’t know the last time I saw a movie that really captured the human experience like that.
It’s easy to dismiss Clooney’s Kowalski as a throwaway character, but the movie wouldn’t quite work without him. Kowalski, confidence incarnate, carries himself with Clooney’s signature swagger and chin-waggles. He plays old country music in his suit, he flirts with Stone, and lives to beat Anatoly Solovyev’s standing record for longest space walk.
When Kowalski forces himself free of Stone’s grip to save her life, he’s a man at peace. He’s lived and loved life to the fullest, with no regrets. It’s Kowalski, a man who loves life, who imparts the importance of LIVING and not just surviving to Stone.
When Stone shoots herself out of an airlock toward a Chinese emergency pod, it’s a triumph. Aboard, she guides the pod toward Earth, declaring happily that either she’ll make it or burn up in the atmosphere. When she lands and emerges from the bottom of Arizona’s Lake Powell, she (with great effort) finally stands on her own two feet, reborn. We don’t know where Ryan goes from here, but we know she’ll be living life on her own terms, maybe for the first time.
Gravity, like Jaws or Alien before it, is a game changing blockbuster. A movie with relatable, human characters faced with a seemingly unbeatable foe; only in this instance it isn’t a shark or an alien, but the void itself. A film with gorgeous, mesmerizing visual effects that could only be accomplished in its time. Gravity isn’t science-fiction, it’s a tale of the triumph of the human spirit. It’s the story of you and me.