Gravity

Two astronauts, Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, and Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, are part of a shuttle mission crew to repair the Hubble telescope.  They are on a spacewalk and everything is going routinely with Ryan diagnosing the problem with a computer circuit and starting the hour long task of fixing it, while Matt flits around in a new jet pack that he’s test flying.  They get word that the Russians have destroyed one of their satellites with a missile.  At first mission control, voiced by Ed Harris, reassures them that there is nothing to worry about.  But the Russian satellite’s demise sends destructive debris shooting through orbit which starts a chain reaction by shredding other space borne objects, creating more debris.  In a matter of minutes, Houston is warning them that they have precious little time to get back into the shuttle, detach from the Hubble and get out of harm’s way.  It’s too late, though.  The debris shoots out of the darkness of space with the speed of bullets and destroys the telescope and the shuttle.

Ryan and Matt miraculously survive.

The deadly debris has shredded a great number of communications satellites, cutting off the two from all help on the ground.  They are left floating in orbit, waiting for the debris field to come back around every ninety minutes.  In the interval, they struggle to survive in the harshest environment that human beings experience and to try and get home.

Gravity is a taut action packed survival story.  It clocks in at about ninety minutes and you are on the edge of your seat for most of that time.  The two astronauts are characterized just enough to make you care about them, the emphasis being put on the puzzle of getting back to earth safely.  Credit goes to Alfonso Cuaron, the director and co-screenwriter with Jonas Cuaron for the bare bones script and the great direction.

The two roles are handled expertly, although I must say that this is not an actor’s movie.  Clooney plays a bluffly confident pilot, who is supremely charming, not really a stretch for him.  Bullock’s character is a shy scientist with a tragedy in her past.  She isn’t out of her comfort zone either, at least as an actor.  Shooting the spacewalk scenes required the actors to be suspended by wires at all kinds of angles on a blue screen stage, with spinning lights shining in their faces.  By all accounts that part was unpleasant.

The technical aspects of this film are amazing.  It looks beautiful with loving care going into the smallest details.  When Ryan cries you see her tears well up and then float out of her eyes in little blobs.  The capsules and space stations they visit look well used and lived in.  Floating in the air are pens and chessmen and other kinds of debris.  It’s all very effective and well done.

Special mention should go to the sound.  Gravity is one of the few movies where you will not hear explosions in space.  This has been a bugaboo for cranky SF fans for decades.  And as we’ve been saying all along it is very effective to show this realistically.  These debris storms start with a few things getting pierced, a solar array getting torn off here and there.  And then the next thing you know the whole structure Ryan is clinging to is being torn into scrap, all in silence.  It’s beautiful in a horrific sort of way and in that situation you would have to remind yourself to be scared.  It’s unnatural.  Total destruction should not be silent.  It’s far more effective than if they’d had all kinds of explosions on the soundtrack.

Now they made some mistakes in the technical details, including the whole idea for the plot.  From what I’ve read, the three major spacefaring nations have agreed to put their stations and satellites in orbits that would make such a cascading debris storm unlikely, although it is possible.  Also when a person gets out of a space suit they do not look as impossibly hot as Sandra Bullock does.  Their hair is matted and sweaty.  They are wearing adult diapers and a special suit that goes on under the space suit.  The gloves worn on spacewalks are stiff and the fingers are hard to move.  You wouldn’t be able to grab onto structures as you floated past them.

But if you have a good story, none of these details matter and Gravity is a very good story.

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