- Movie Rating -

Gravity (2013)

| October 5, 2013 | 0 Comments

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” is barely 20 seconds along when an ominous title on the screen reminds us that “Life in space is impossible.” With all of the advances in space exploration in the past 60 years, this seems gloomy and unnervingly closed-minded, yet Cuarón backs it up. He then spends the next 90 minutes proving this statement to be correct. Space is a hostile, cold, merciless environment unfit for human habitation. One false move and you’ll suffer for it.

One of the great achievements of “Gravity” is that Cuarón portrays space without a single ounce of romanticism. He sees it in terms of cold reality. The story is lean and spare (as well as a running time that it is surprisingly short), presenting a nightmare scenario involving only two people, with a handful of others who exist faintly around the film’s edges. One is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is on his final mission. The other is Bio-Medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) who is on her first trip into space, tagging along to help do some work on The Hubble Telescope. Bobbing and floating around in the blackness of space with the earth looming behind them, they are privy to such breathtaking sights as the polar ice caps, the northern lights and a nasty hurricane pattern somewhere in the vicinity of Florida. Cuarón’s great achievement is to put us squarely in the environment itself. We are there with these two travelers, and that makes their dilemma much more palatable. He gets the details right from floating debris – chess pieces, pens and partials – to the stirring scene of floating tears.

At first, things seem unnervingly calm, yet we know something is coming, and when it does, it happens with scary ferocity. Stone and Kowalski get an urgent message from Mission Control (voiced by old reliable Ed Harris) that a Russian satellite has exploded and has caused a chain reaction, destroying other satellites and causing a massive shower of debris that is headed their way. They have seconds to react. In a moment, the shuttle is gone and they are drifting through the infinity of space. The fate of a third astronaut is a grisly reminder of what they’re dealing with.

What follows is one damned thing after another as Stone and Kowalski try and figure out how to get to safety in an environment dead set on robbing them of it (Kowalsky clocks how long they have before the debris comes around again). Much of the adventure cannot be revealed without spoilers except to say that while you know the plot, you don’t know the specifics. Cuarón creates tension by rooting his plot so organically that it seems to be happening in real time. He keeps the story and the characters very spare, only employing what is necessary to the story. He doesn’t gum the movie up with a lot of perfunctory dialogue and needless scenes. Much like “Apollo 13,” the dilemma is the story, but unlike that film – where the astronauts had mission control to help – this one cuts the characters loose to fend for themselves. Communication has been lost and they are literally on their own.

The characters are also very spare. We learn a little about Stone and even less about Kowalski. She’s adrift on her mission and in her life. Her space back home is as empty as the blackness she’s floating in. Having suffered a tragedy, her life is now meaningless except in her work. Yet, the tragedy in space opens up something in her, a regeneration of will that could only be brought on by crisis.

“Gravity” is, for a lot of the time, a one-woman show. Clooney is good, but Bullock gives her best and most stirring performance playing someone who is pushed to the absolute edge of what one human being should have to endure, arriving at the pinnacle of decision of whether to keep going or let herself be consumed. This is a very physical performance, given in long stretches without dialogue. Cuarón circumvents getting to know her through exposition by giving us long, lingering shots of Bullock’s lovely, yet wounded, face. Her face becomes the film’s most enduring image, peering out through her visor with large eyes that suggest more than she is willing to tell. Inside of her is twisting a weary soul whose body is being subjected to the same measure of extreme physical punishment that she has suffered back in Illinois. Yet, this is a story of how she is forced to finds her way out of the darkness physically, mentally and emotionally. There’s a brilliant shot mid-way through the film as Stone floats in a fetal position with an air hose behind her, looking like a baby in the womb. It’s a symbol of rebirth that comes as a jolt.

Sandra Bullock has always been the most down-to-earth actress of her generation. She’s beautiful, but unglamorous and she can reveal more about her emotional state in her silences then most actress’ can with gobs of dialogue. Here she creates a character without a lot of exposition and we come to care deeply about her. In a way, this movie, which seems to be about the harshness of exteriors, becomes a moving drama about the wilderness of interiors. The sparseness of Bullock’s character allows us to attach our own feelings. She’s a person living in limbo both in space and on the ground. “Gravity” begins with the information that “life in space is impossible,” and as we come to follow Ryan’s journey, we discover that this statement is also about her.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.