What’s your greatest fear? Being buried alive? Fire? Perhaps spiders? Well after seeing Gravity you might develop a new one: astrophobia. The fear of outer space. After all, Gravity—one of the most audacious, nerve-wrecking, stomach-churning, beautiful films of the past few years—is filled with peril and destruction. Its slight running time of 91 minutes feels inexorably long. It is not an enjoyable film, but one I need to see again.
Some 372 miles above the Earth, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an engineer on her first mission, and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are making repairs to a Hubble telescope. After a satellite is destroyed, sending debris hurtling towards them, they receive word to immediately stop their work and return to the ship. Unfortunately, the shuttle is destroyed. Their only hope of getting home—with depleting oxygen and limited fuel—is to make it to another station.
Gravity is not a movie focused on story or character development or discovery. It is about placing two people in an extraordinary situation and watching how they react–a somewhat cold observational study of the human survival instinct. After all, Bullock’s Ryan is like a female, astronautical Job. Untethered. Floating in space. Disconnected from Earth. Surviving a space station catching on fire. She moves from disaster to unrelenting disaster, from obstacle to obstacle. She questions why this is happening to her, but no answers come. Not from Houston. Not from God.
Bullock is the movie’s heartbeat. We hold our breath as her fingers reach for the railing, squeeze our seat’s armrests as she tries to unscrew a bolt. Even when her character is alone—separated from the affable but supporting George Clooney—with only cramped set pieces and the green screen, she holds our focus. She is riveting, and merits all of the early award-season buzz.
Alfonso Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) is credited as director, co-writer, producer and co-editor. And this is apparent. With long stretches of the movie that rely only upon special effects, much of the pacing and storytelling was created in post-production. And with the pacing, Cuarón takes his time. When Bullock is spinning untethered into open space, for what feels like several minutes, we look out of her helmet and see Earth and open space fly by, again and again. We watch as the sun starts to rise from around the Earth. When she finally becomes unencumbered of her spacesuit, we watch as she curls into a fetal position and simply floats.
(A quick note: usually I dissuade people from seeing 3D versions of movies, but here even IMAX 3D is worth it. The effect is used not for sight gags but to remove the movie-going sensation of watching the action through a window. Instead, you are immersed in the world: inside Ryan’s helmet, floating in space and surrounded by the destruction. However, if you experience motion sensitivity, then avoid 3D. The smooth, floating camera work and set pieces/actors move in constant, disparate motion, which even made me queasy at times. But even in 2D, you will still experience the unbelievably beautiful and terrifying special effects and art direction.)
The movie will not be to everyone’s liking. Some will expect a straight-up action film. Others, an existential examination of human survival. (Some—like me—might find the constant peril a bit much. I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been an Alien facehugger waiting in one of the ship’s pods.) But most will leave the theater in total agreement with Ryan when she says, “I hate space.”