Studio: Warner Brothers
Director: Alfonso Cuaron
Writer: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
Producer: Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
When satellite debris destroys their ship and eliminates all communication with NASA, two astronauts are left alone to struggle for survival in outer space.
When asked for his thoughts on Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity,” James Cameron told Variety that he thought it was “the best space film ever done.” The accuracy of that statement can be debated endlessly, but Cameron’s qualifications for having the authority to make it are more difficult to argue. Though it is not necessarily his work on “Aliens,” “Terminator,” or “Avatar” that classifies his remarks as high praise for a filmed work of technologically oriented science fiction. Cameron’s familiarity with the claustrophobic conditions of his films “Titanic” and “The Abyss” grant him firsthand insight on where “Gravity” succeeds most. And that is in its ability to choke the breath from an audience witnessing the struggle for human survival on a relatable level, despite the less relatable outer space setting.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts occupying either end of the NASA experience range on a space shuttle mission to service the Hubble telescope. When a Russian missile turns a defunct satellite into scrap metal, a deadly chain reaction sends the debris hurtling towards the crew of the Explorer. The danger eventually passes, but not before blacking out all communications with Houston Ground Control, wiping out the shuttle and everyone aboard, and leaving Clooney and Bullock stranded and alone in the cold vastness of outer space.
Reflected by its brief 90-minute runtime and its slim cast list, “Gravity” is a sleekly lean story that wastes no time on extraneous Hollywood glad-handing or unnecessary pomp and circumstance. Anything not germane to maintaining the forward momentum or to invigorating the constricting tension is immediately jettisoned without hesitation.
Save for the opening scenes of ambling spacewalks set to Hank Williams, Jr. guitar strums while watching astronauts repair telescope panels, which are meant to lull the audience into a false foundation of calm anyway, the persistent stress is relentless. The hour and a half hurls by as Clooney and Bullock are flipped, tossed, and flung out of the frying pan and into one fire after another. Murphy’s Law extends past the ozone layer and into the Hollywood stars’ spacesuits as everything that can possibly go wrong does.
Bullock and Clooney are already among the elite of well-liked celebrities before they even step onscreen. Alfonso Cuaron starts with the right acting pieces in place and only needs the briefest moments of human connection to endear the characters and make them relatable in a relatively short span. There is such a careful economy with how “Gravity” employs its visuals and its sound design that it is a marvel that the space depicted can seem so oppressively immense and yet tightly confined concurrently.
Loneliness and isolation are universal fears present in all human beings. So is the instinct to survive. “Gravity” grips each viewer’s attention so tightly because it is tuned in like a sharp laser to these base senses and emotions. And the story is woven intricately around these core ideas. Illustrate those states of minds through impressive imagery and strong characterization and it is a challenge to not be swept into the chilling chaos.
Outer space is a terrifying place even without a chestburster or a xenomorph promising imminent death. Space exploration is also fascinating and awe inspiring, and “Gravity” successfully captures those aspects. However, outer space can also be dreadfully boring, even when the movie is not. By nature, action moves slowly outside Earth’s atmosphere and many vistas are populated by endless black. The downside of the movie’s effective simplicity is that it has a more difficult time lingering in the consciousness. And those who are less impressed by the pioneering aspects of space travel will have a harder time investing in an environment that has little appeal to personal tastes.
“Gravity” is most effective on viewers prone to claustrophobia, thanks to numerous scenes of depleted oxygen, drowning waters, and threats of depressurization. Yet everyone can appreciate the technical achievements on display, regardless of how the film affects each individual. There is little question that “Gravity” is immersive in the moment. The astronauts’ plight is engrossing and the cinematography is engaging. But for some, that strong impression is one that can fade quickly by the time the credits end. Many people will exit the film sharing James Cameron’s sentiment. It remains to be seen if those initial fans will feel the same way once the adrenaline subsides.
Review Score: 75