Review: Gravity

Alfonso Cuarón is a director with a rather slim portfolio who has turned out to be one of my favorite directors. His 2006 movie Children of Men is in my top five list. (I actually haven’t compiled a formal list, but I know it would rank in there.) His other movies have been also been unique and noteworthy. Also in 2006, he produced Pan’s Labyrinth. Guillermo del Toro, another notable Spanish filmmaker, directed that movie and also recently dazzled us with Pacific Rim.  Cuarón quickly proved himself too good to direct just Harry Potter movies. In Gravity, which I finally got around to seeing this weekend, he proves he hasn’t lost his magic.

You may lose your lunch instead. When not feeling seasick you may instead feel dazzled. Just how in hell did he pull this off? If anything, this movie is about the complications of staying alive in an absence of gravity. It quickly becomes apparent, as you feel your own stomach heaving, that being weightless is not all it’s cracked up to be. This is particularly true if you are spacewalking (an oxymoron, if ever there was one). Which are what Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are busy doing when this movie starts. Stone, a mission specialist in charge of fixing the Hubble space telescope, seems to be doing the actual work. Matt gets to play, on the pretense of testing a new fancy NASA jetpack. It lets him move around near the space shuttle with the ease of Buck Rogers, which he is. Matt is a wisecrack and loves an audience. He only has Ryan, fellow astronaut Aningaaq (voiced by Orto Ignatiussen) and mission control to listen to his tall stories while they float 600 kilometers above the planet. Ryan is too busy trying not to throw up inside her spacesuit to pay much attention to Matt’s tall tales.

The movie begins with a technical directorial tour de force: a continuous shot that lasts for maybe fifteen minutes that show the astronauts at work and play. This is quite effective when it works (something similar was done in the movie Serenity), but is too much trouble for most directors. Cuarón somehow pulls it off as the earth glides below them and Matt does wheelies. So it goes until all hell breaks loose. Actually it’s the debris from a Russian satellite collision, which abruptly changes course somehow and comes hurling at the shuttle. If you’ve seen the trailer you know what happens next. The debris quickly does a Ginzu knife trick on Hubble and their space shuttle. Ryan loses her tether and is quickly lost in space just as the sun passes below the horizon. She is not only untethered, she is tumbling. Yawing, pitching and rolling, to use the technical terms, with no propulsion units and no atmosphere to slow her down or stop her tumbling.

There still is Matt, with his jetpack, focus and sardonic wit even during an emergency. It won’t spoil anything to tell you that Matt manages to get a hold on her, but her oxygen is quickly draining away and their survival options seem grim. Aningaaq is hit by debris and quickly dies. All of this happens in the eerie silence of outer space. Their only hope for survival is the International Space Station a hundred kilometers away, if Matt and his fancy jetpack can traverse the distance. Then there is the matter of Ryan’s oxygen supply, that is fading quickly. Major Tom to ground control…

I hate to give away too much more of the plot, for this is a movie best experienced rather than reviewed. Yet it’s an odd movie in lots of ways. There are really only two actors, at least on screen, in the whole movie: Bullock and Clooney. For a change Bullock gets top billing. This is principally Ryan’s crazy story for survival. As if the depleted oxygen supply were not enough there is the debris to worry about. Every ninety minutes it will return and slice through anything in its path. When you consider that satellites travel at tens of thousands of miles an hour, it doesn’t take much mass hitting something in orbit to decimate it.

So this is definitely a try to hold your lunch movie, so if you are sensitive to roller coasters you might want to maintain an empty stomach during the movie, or periodically take off the 3-D glasses. And yes, this is one movie you want to see in 3-D. It won’t be any less terrifying in 2-D but this is as close to being weightless as we mortals are likely to get in our lifetimes. You have to experience it through Cuarón lens.

Purists have noticed some technical glitches in the movie. Overall it is faithful to the way things move in outer space but I did notice a few things. For example, to move a hundred kilometers in a certain direction in outer space is no trivial matter, even if in this case the shuttle and the International Space Station are in largely the same orbit. If the ISS is behind you, as this movie suggests, pointing your jet pack in the opposite direction should slow your orbit and move you below the ISS. It’s ambiguous enough in the film where you have to give some license to the director. Most likely between trying not to lose your lunch and gripping the armrest of your theater chair, you won’t have time to analyze it too much.

I think Bullock is a good actress. She does a competent job getting your heart racing in this movie. Bullock really is there to bring reality to the surreal stuff happening to her so far above the earth. That she can pull it off when so much of it is virtual certainly proves her skill. If you ever dreamed of being an astronaut, and I certainly have, then this movie will make you reconsider. It’s a great and unique view up there at 600 kilometers, but it ain’t no cruise ship, that’s for sure.

This movie is another directorial tour de force by Cuarón that raises the bar impossibly high for future movies that need to accurately depict what outer space is really like. It will leave you breathless, but it won’t leave you with tears streaming down your face like Children of Men. However, you will get something increasingly hard to find in the movies these days: the feeling that you have been to a movie. It used to be a movie was something special. This movie meets that slim criteria.

3.4 out of 4-points.

[xrr rating=3.4/4]

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