‘I’ ON CULTURE
Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a brilliant work of art. It is compact, tight and so filled with tension that it feels as if you haven’t been able to breathe while watching it. Films like this are the reason movies are made. It is not a “this is one of the great films of all time” kind of film, but a small-scale gem that demonstrates the virtuosity of the director (Cuarón), the cinematographer (Emmanuel Lubezki) and an actress at the very best of her work (Sandra Bullock).
The movie begins as a group of American astronauts works on upgrading the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mission specialist on her first space flight, is on a spacewalk repairing the electronics as the commander of the flight, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), uses his thrusters to fly around the spacecraft. While waiting, he speaks to Mission Control, saying, “Houston, I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission,” paraphrasing the famous words Jim Lovett used on Apollo 13. As a bit of inside business, actor Ed Harris, who played Mission Control’s voice in the movie about that mission, responds. Soon after, the crew is warned to get out of there. A Russian satellite has exploded, and debris is moving right through the area at very fast speeds. Suddenly, it hits. Three of the crew are killed immediately as the station is wrecked.
The rest of the movie focuses on Dr. Stone as she attempts to reach safety. At first, she follows Kowalski’s orders as he, the experienced hand, finds her while she’s drifting helplessly in space. The two struggle to check out their own ship, which is destroyed. She then works with Kowalski as he tows her to the International Space Station. She alone survives, and struggles with the damage caused by the debris to the station, which is essentially wrecked, as she makes her way to a Russian Soyuz ship docked to it. Then she battles with the damaged craft to get to a deserted Chinese station, Shengzhou, which could provide “the last ride home.”
The film seamlessly moves from an objective approach to first a group of astronauts, to the struggling pair, and finally to Stone. Gradually, we see the whole universe through her eyes. She begins as a real outsider, semi-helpless except in her own specialty, dependent on Kowalski. But, once he’s gone, she battles on. The movie moves into the mode of a disaster film, where characters battle to stay alive, with the difference being that Stone is really all alone. She is out of contact with Earth, miles from any other living being, working on space ships where all the buttons are labeled in foreign languages. At one point… well, you’ll have to see the movie.
Bullock gives a performance that is easily worthy of an Oscar nomination; she might well win the award. She is the perfect actress for a role like this; she is Everywoman. We gradually learn at least something about her history as we also watch her growth. At the start, she is a nerd; by the end, she is a warrior. And, keep in mind, she carries the story, on-screen, for the entire time. Clooney’s Kowalski is OK; essentially he plays George Clooney in space, a wise guy but also an experienced, capable leader. His part, however, is far shorter than Bullock’s. Although there are a few other voices heard, no other actors appear on screen. This is Bullock’s show.
It is a fairly short movie, very compact. Unlike other films that run two and a half hours with plenty of room to cut a large piece of them, there is no place in this film that could be cut. The debris causing the damage struck within the first two minutes of the film. It would actually take about 90 minutes for it to come around again. The movie works pretty much in real time; it lasts only a bit longer than that time as a second wave of debris hits just before the end of the film.
This is easily the best film I have seen all year. It is exceptional. Many people were in the theater. This is a movie really made for 3-D. Films tend to use 3-D solely to get more money from us and are as effective in two dimensions. This movie is a glorious exception. See it, and this time, if you can stand 3-D and can afford it, see it that way. But definitely see it.