1 hour, 30 minutes
There is a moment of incredible beauty and almost zen-like calm in this week’s astronomical thriller, “Gravity.” Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone is in a space capsule, orbiting miles above the earth. Freed from the constraints of her bulky space suit, she lets her body float freely, gradually arranging herself into an almost fetal position. Bullock is at the center of the screen and the rest of her environment spins slowly around her. The scene is both gorgeously composed and brimming with thematic importance — an appropriate description of the film as a whole. As a story, “Gravity” is riveting, though a little heavy-handed and corny at times. As a piece of visual art, the film is stunning, unmatched in the realm of earthbound science fiction.
The film opens with a magnificent and unbelievably long tracking shot — some fifteen minutes without a cut. Dr. Stone, a rookie with specific knowledge of new hardware being installed on the Hubble Telescope, is working with the assistance of mission commander Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, who is testing out a prototype jet pack for use in extended space walks. Abruptly, Mission Control alerts them that the mission is over immediately and that debris from an exploded satellite is careening their way. Soon, our heroes are in the middle of a disaster that can scarcely be imagined, the end of which will leave them alone, adrift in space, with very few options for survival.
“Gravity” is pretty remarkable. As a sales pitch, it’s a little difficult. Only two actors, floating around in space. No villain, no sex, barely any language. Incredibly expensive and complicated shoot. It’s no wonder the studios shied away for so long. Despite the large budget and difficult filming process, I’m sure there was question as to whether audiences would show up, even if it is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating around in space.
Wisely, however, the filmmakers showed their hand, just enough, in a trailer that gives a small taste of the opening disaster scene and instantly hooks you in for more. If anything, that trailer makes the movie look too scary. Now, granted, it’s scary, but in a tense, “are they going to make it out alive” kind of way, instead of an “oh my god I’m going to suffocate alone in the dark” sort of thing.
The movie isn’t perfect by any means, just ridiculously engaging. The script is a little hokey, and a little broad at times. At others, it’s incredibly moving, though still broad. Rarely, however, have I seen a movie where the script problems matter so little in the face of the whole. The story matters, certainly, otherwise we’d just be watching “Space: An IMAX Experience,” but by the time the action starts, the audience is roped in immediately and it’s a total package, corny dialogue and all. In the best way possible, the movie is reminiscent of a roller coaster. Once you’re in, you’re in all the way. You don’t have time or the inclination to stop and grouse that this turn or that spin is over the top thematically — you’re just holding on for dear life.
“Gravity” is obviously influenced by such films as “2001” and “Apollo 13,” but visually it leaves those films in the dust. The scenes of the astronauts floating through space, with the gargantuan planet filling the screen behind them are nothing short of awesome. By this day and age, you might imagine you’d be used to seeing Earth from space, as they show it in movie after movie. “Gravity” sweeps all that away, giving you the impression that you’re really there. Director Alfonso Cuarón achieves a remarkable level of realism, realism that wasn’t even possible a few years ago. It wasn’t until “Avatar” and the new technology spearheaded by James Cameron, that the possibility of “Gravity” became a reality. It may seem like hyperbole to suggest that “Gravity” is better than classics such as “2001” or “Apollo 13,” but Cuarón is able to make huge strides, not by being better than legends like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, or Stanley Kubrick, but by absorbing their work and standing on their shoulders. This is a film that lovingly references it’s predecessors, both in tone and specifics, even going so far as to include the voice of Ed Harris as Mission Control.
The film is very short, barely an hour and half, which is a definite plus considering how spent you feel upon exiting the theater. Make no mistake, though some descriptions of this movie make it seem like a slow, artsy character piece, “Gravity” is an all-out, no holds barred action thriller — just without any of the dumb parts. Alfonso Cuarón is known for making moody, personal dramas such as “Y Tu Mamá, Tambien,” and “Children of Men,” but “Gravity” is another animal entirely.
Bullock and Clooney both do an excellent job in their roles, and were the script better, “Gravity” could easily be the best film of the year. It may not be the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, but as far as the visuals and how they carry the narrative, this may be one of the best ever made. The film is doing very well right now, and there will be the inevitable backlash as people begin to discover that the science isn’t all entirely kosher and will attempt to impress their friends with facts like, “Well, you know you could never actually see the International Space Station from the Hubble Telescope,” but those things don’t matter. This movie doesn’t give specific and accurate instructions on how to survive a debris cloud in space or the proper breaking and acceleration procedures for piloting a jet pack.
What it does do is give you a sense of amazement — of actually feeling like you are there, floating high above the Earth. It has to be seen to be believed. And, no matter how big your TV is at home, there is no substitute for seeing this film in theaters, preferably on the biggest screen you can find. It’s quite a view.
“Gravity” is rated PG-13 for outer space mayhem, frightening and disturbing scenes, and mild language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.