Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) has the rather annoying habit of mentioning, for no reason whatsoever, that he has a bad feeling about the Earth-orbital mission at hand. That he uses the non sequitur to introduce an endearing personal anecdote is probably small consolation to Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a first-time astronaut who feels like she’s inside a tumble dryer. The two of them are hurtling through space (inner space, really) on a repair mission for the Hubble Space Telescope when suddenly their high-speed platform becomes a shooting gallery of orbital debris. In the space of a few minutes, Hubble is destroyed, and Dr. Stone is sent tumbling into space.
The opening title card of Alfonso Cuarón‘s Gravity announces, in no uncertain terms, that life in space is impossible. And as hard as that is to believe in the glorious age of information and space exploration in which we live, the film does a marvelous job at conveying just how much we might be kidding ourselves with all this manned space travel nonsense. Every slender thread of survival that we latch onto as a species is useless in space. Food? Water? Air? Only what you take with you. Something’s coming at you- what do you do? Smack it away? Vacate its path? Every attempt at avoidance or deflection is dependent on your ability to exert force, and that ability is non-existent without gravity. Perhaps the most emblematic and disturbing image in the film is of an unlucky astronaut killed in the initial volley, who is left with a large, frozen, awkwardly-shaped hole straight through his facemask, skull, brain, and skull again – hit by a single giant bullet that passed all the way through his head like it wasn’t even there.
Force and gravity are the central setpieces of this film, and for the most part, the physics seem to be dead-on. If you hurtle someone through space, they keep going until something stops them. If you impact a structure in space, it doesn’t explode; it shatters, and every piece keeps right on floating or speeding in the same space and trajectory until some other force acts upon it. Apart from her own despair, Dr. Stone’s only nemesis in this film is Sir Isaac Newton. Possibly my sole complaint about this film is that there is a rather significant plot moment, about halfway through the film, that appears to abandon the laws of physics in the interests of drama. What’s more, there’s basically nothing I can else I can say about it that wouldn’t spoil a rather major event in the film. Suffice to say, it bothered me a great deal in the moment, despite my scientific mind coming up with a plausible (if a bit fanwanky) explanation after the film. I was a bit surprised to see the film resort to such a cliché at the expense of its own plausibility, but it is surrounded by enough well-realized physics and plotting that it certainly didn’t ruin the film*.
Sandra Bullock heartily defeated my skepticism in this film. I was not sanguine about her ability to carry a solo survival thriller, but she delivers an incredibly taut and tense performance. This character is broken on multiple levels before the film even begins, which makes her pursuit of triumph and homecoming that much more poignant as the film goes on. Much of the film’s imagery, right down to its stunning final shot, relies upon Bullock’s ability to convey this tension between hopelessness and survival, and she pulls it off masterfully. If there was ever a character with the proper temperament to be the sole survivor of a disaster, it’s this one – even if the actual body count will still be luck of the draw. George Clooney makes a welcome addition to the crew as charming, cocky flyboy Kowalski. If it didn’t involve such bulky costuming and wirework, this would be a role that he could play in his sleep. Kowalski is on his last mission before retirement (never a safe character move), but always maintains his composure and professionalism when the situation becomes dire. His radio interplay with Bullock works well, even as it becomes clear that simply being able to do the best possible thing in a bad situation might not be enough.
Gravity is not only one of the finest hard science fiction films ever made; it is a stunning treatise on the limits of human exploration and survival. Unlike a film like 127 Hours, which is better regarded as a treatise on human endurance, Gravity is a film in which simply “choosing life” is not enough. When you’re in an environment that is anathema to human survival, your choice must be accompanied by expertise, equipment, and a whole lot of good old fashioned luck.
FilmWonk Rating: 9 out of 10
*My spoilery physics complaint (highlight to view): When Stone was tangled up in the Soyuz parachute attached loosely to the ISS, Kowalski should not have continued to pull away from her after she had successfully halted him. Whatever force was supposed to be acting upon Kowalski in that moment was not made clear at all. Like a continuously decompressing aircraft with a hull breach (which made an unwelcome appearance only two episodes into Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), this is just a lazy violation of physics to heighten tension, and it really only works if your audience isn’t hip to it. This one definitely bugged me in the moment, but it was surrounded by enough good stuff that I wasn’t inclined to mark down the film for it. And I did manage to think of a plausible, albeit fanwanky explanation after the fact – if the ISS were in an uncontrolled rotation, Kowalski could be propelled away from it in the manner depicted.