You know what’s great about movies? I’m never going to space. Or Nazi Germany. And yet, with film, I can both enjoy the delights and terrors of such places while also leaving the theater afterwards to have an enormous pee in the full knowledge that these are terrible places that I will never experience. Gravity (2013), great for many reasons, adds to its asset column by fully vindicating my beliefs that space is the absolute last resort for humanity. “Oh, but it’s beautiful, look at the sunrise.” Yeah, and if you somehow become detached, you get to count down to your own asphyxiation and death. Guys, I appreciate we’re going to have to leave this planet one day and I am grateful to the boys and girls at NASA for laying the foundation for our exodus, but there ain’t no way I’m going up there for kicks. As the film opens, “Life in space is impossible.”
Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) worked at a hospital developing a scanning device of some kind that she is now installing on the Hubble Telescope so that it might map the edges of the universe. At the same time, Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is on his last mission to space to test out a jet pack. Stone has six months training for this, her first mission, while Kowalski is obviously an old hand with the respect and admiration of all. And, ladies, he’s single. They’re joined by a third astronaut (Paul Sharma), but it’s not quite clear what he’s doing there, and the space shuttle crew. “Hey guys,” says Mission Control (Ed Harris) (and I’m paraphrasing with quotation marks), “looks like someone shot down a Russian satellite, but the debris doesn’t overlap with your orbit.” A few moments later, a domino effect of inertia in the near vacuum of space means that there’s plenty of overlap and things go very badly. The upshot is that it’s Kowalski and Stone in space without their shuttle and very, very limited options.
One of the last things our third astronaut said was “Anxiety isn’t good for the heart.” I wish someone told director Alfonso Cuarón. Or perhaps I don’t because this is like Apollo 13 (1995) meets Cast Away (2000), they pull out Tom Hanks and add stomach-turning despair. The despair isn’t the only thing turning stomachs as Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki put you in every prepositional relationship with the characters in zero-g. Early on, I was almost nauseated, but, like an astronaut-in-training, I overcame my sense of axes (plural of axis) and my stomach calmed down. [Thankfully, I had read Ender’s Game, which helped enormously in that respect.] Much has been said about the graphics of Gravity, but I must admit that I almost didn’t notice because they were so cleanly integrated while very rarely going for those 3D money shots that usually spoil things. I did not see the film in 3D, IMAX, or beyond thunderdome, and still found it visually amazing. So, if you fear that medium as much as I do, then you need not feel ill-used by fate and miss out on Gravity and I’ll tell you why.
The screenplay by Alfonso Cuarón and his son Jonás Cuarón is excellent. As with many films of this kind, looking back on their structure may induce shrugging. Like, and I’m sorry to make such a mean comparison, Will Smith‘s After Earth (2013), things look pretty dire early on and goals suddenly show up near by that promise possible salvation. Unlike After Earth, however, I never felt that I was being man-handled into tense situations. It’s freakin’ space, I’m tense already, so if something, anything gives the slightest glimmer of a chance of survival, then I’m mentally spurring on those astronauts to go for it. “Craft a hang glider onto our jet packs?…Okay!” [NB: That is not an actual plot point.] I heard some bitter sounds coming from the more Jaden…I mean jaded theater-goers about plausibilities, but I think they’re being too critical. When it comes to dire situation, and they don’t come much direr, people make things happen. If they don’t clam up and die in the first five minutes, people will show you something. But they will also get very sad and this was very present in the film
Gravity is so delightful because of how it places itself in the echelons of film. It certainly isn’t art house, but Cuarón is willing to dwell in a symbolic moment or to bend the idea of what is real when he wants to. Cuarón’s hallmark, if I can say that after seeing only three of his films, is the deep sense of realism in unreal environments. In Children of Men (2006), it was almost documentary-style filmmaking of a dark future world where all but one person has become barren. Gravity is too animated, perhaps, to bring that same kind of grit, but the realness of the emotional journey was able to mess up what is an almost too-sanitary vision of space. So, for all but the most painfully dull pedant, Gravity is a please-all kind of movie. And did I mention the music (Steven Price)? Excellent.
For the record, I really liked the ending and I’ll tell you why if you’re curious.
Films mentioned in this review…(paid links)
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