Mel's Cine-Files – Much More Than Just A Space Drama
By Melissa Agar
Gravity (WB, 2013) – Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Writers: Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron. Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris, Paul Sharma, Amy Warren, Orto Ignatiussen, & Basher Savage. Color and 3-D, 90 minutes.
There are many reasons that I love film, but one of them lies in the ability they have to take us to places we’ve never been. Because of films, I have been all over the world, traveled through time, and seen worlds real and imagined. A truly great film is one that allows you to lose yourself completely in the moment and forget about the fact that what you’re seeing is completely artificial. Gravity is just such a film.
Alfonso Cuaron, one of contemporary film’s finest directors, brings us a story that is utterly riveting. Astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) and medical engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock) are on a routine spacewalk to repair damage on the Hubble Space Telescope. This mission is Kowalski’s final mission in space; it is Stone’s first outing after just six months of training. As he flies around the telescope on his jet pack, Kowalski keeps joking about having a “bad feeling” about this mission, a winking moment of foreshadowing. The old pro is full of jokes, country music, and stories while the rookie is struggling to keep her lunch down in the face of zero gravity. The mission goes south when their shuttle is hit by debris from a destroyed Russian satellite. The shuttle experiences catastrophic damage, all communication with Houston is lost, and sole survivors Kowalski and Stone must now rely on each other to fight for their own survival.
The action of this film takes place in outer space. Now, intellectually, I recognize that it is impossible to actually shoot a film in outer space and yet never once did the film have a moment where the effects used to create this environment seemed obvious or false. Every second seems completely genuine. Cuaron’s attention to detail and accuracy is incredible – whether it’s the way tears float in zero gravity or the absence of sound in space. The effects here set a standard that will be hard to top.
Of course, effects are nothing without a good script for them to service. Cuaron and his son/co-screenwriter Jonas Cuaron have created a tense, tightly paced script that will have you on the edge of your seat. The script flies, moving its two characters from terrifying problem to terrifying problem. It dangles salvation in front of Kowalski and Stone only to rip it away from them on multiple occasions. It is a ninety minutes filled with horror and hope. It is a film about healing in the face of certain doom and what to do when failure seems certain.
The film rests entirely on the shoulders of Clooney and Bullock. Clooney’s Kowalski is the old pro and able to keep his calm even when things look their dimmest. He faces adversity with calm assurance, quickly able to come up with an alternate solution with a wink and a smile. Just as he guides Stone through the horror of their situation, he also proves to be a calming influence for the audience. His flashes of humor help the audience relax a little, too, in the face of their own anxiety as we ponder the fate of the characters onscreen. The Clooney charm is on full display, and it is a winning performance.
Bullock, though, is the one who does the heavy emotional lifting, and it is absolutely riveting to watch. Her terror is palpable – completely raw. More than once, I was reminded of Cast Away and Tom Hanks’s terrific performance; to be honest, Bullock’s work here blows that one out of the water. Her Stone is a damaged soul, mourning loss, and clearly seeing space as a way to escape the grief that darkens every moment for her back on Earth. She is smart but lacking confidence, recognizing that practice in the simulator does not necessarily make her qualified to survive this ordeal, an ordeal for which there surely is no real training. There is a vulnerable tenacity to her character, and she becomes the surrogate for her terrified audience. We root for her, and we fear for her.
Gravity truly is a magnificent film and will surely land a spot on many year-end lists of the best films of this year. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but it’s surely a potential Oscar contender for the visual effects, the brilliant directing, and Bullock’s spellbinding performance.
It is a film that haunts you long after you’ve left the theatre. I found myself speechless for a good hour after it was over, still chewing on the events of the film and shaking off the anxiety I’d found myself swimming in for the film’s 90 minutes. It will be awhile before I am able to forget my vicarious journey through space.