★★★★ / ★★★★
During a space shuttle mission, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), an astronaut, receive an order from Mission Control: abort the task because space debris triggered by a Russian missile strike is on its way. The warning proves too late—significant portions of the space shuttle are suddenly in pieces and the pair come flying about in separate directions without a tether to keep them within distance of their assigned worked area. Since it is Dr. Stone’s first mission, she panics and we observe Newton’s first law of motion in terrifying action.
“Gravity,” directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is an exhausting experience in the best way possible. Clocking in at just about an hour and a half, the picture shows that one does not need a bulky running time to appear significant and fulfilling. It values our time, chooses to go straight to the point, and it gets the job done. The first scene sets the pace and the director is keenly aware of this. As a result, the first ten minutes is highly accomplished, allowing us to marvel at the sight of Earth and then thrusting us into horror as the shuttle—without sound—breaks like glass. It is a sight to behold.
The story could have just been about two people in spacesuits as they attempt to survive in the blackness of space. I had my doubts. What is so interesting about someone floating about and breathing heavily? Instead, the screenplay by Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón plays with the audience. The medical engineer and the cosmonaut are written smart. General plans are drawn but plenty of unexpected errors and chance happenings occur. So many turns unravel that we learn to expect the unexpected. That does not necessarily mean we are ready for them. I like it best when movies are consistently one step ahead, those that demand to look us in the eye and dare us to tangle with it.
It is masterful and elegant in conveying a sense of danger. The way the camera glides so calmly as characters attempt to grab a hold of something—anything—to avoid getting sucked into a vacuum with little to no hope of rescue jolts us into leaning closer at the screen while simultaneously flinching at the possible worst case scenario. The juxtaposition between images captured and execution are melded just right.
Half of the casting works. Choosing Bullock to play a medical engineer whose first time in space quickly escalates into an unimaginable tragedy is unexpected because I am used to seeing her in comedies and comedy-dramas. Here, she shows a more serious and somber dimension to her talent. My favorite scene involves Dr. Stone howling and barking like a dog. A lesser performer who does not completely understand the character might have refused to perform the scene. After all, it probably looks stupid on paper or it might look plain silly on screen. I loved that Bullock did it and committed to it completely. To me, it is the character’s defining moment—forget the sad revelation about her past, how much she values her solitude, and how no one is waiting for her at home. Give us an alternative to convey a character’s mindset—something fresh we can chew on.
The casting that works less effectively is Clooney. While understandable that his character is supposed to be a very charming guy, one who has experienced life and always has stories to tell, I was never lost in Kowalski or felt connected to him. Instead, I saw and was constantly reminded of Clooney the big movie star. Perhaps it might have worked better if, like Bullock to Dr. Stone, Kowalski is played by someone who is either playing against-type or someone we do not recognize.
“Gravity” is cited by some alongside Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” These are two completely different movies. Both are ambitious visually. Both are willing to engage. The former is a story about survival. It takes place within the Earth’s circumference. Though some may disagree, I think it is meant purely to entertain—and there is nothing wrong with that. The latter is a story about not only our relationship with technology but also the limitations of what we can comprehend as a species. It takes place en route to Jupiter and beyond. It inspires us to ruminate.
Despite their differences, the two, in some ways, are spiritually connected.