Though countless photos exist, it’s something most of us will never actually see – the awesome beauty of our beautiful blue Earth from orbit. And even as the title cards at the beginning of director Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity remind us that travelling into space is madness, we’ve all considered what it must be like to hang weightless above the clouds. The movie is a thrilling adventure, with moments of poignant drama.
High above us, a routine space mission is in progress. Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) lazily drifts around the shuttle Explorer in his astronaut propulsion unit, chattering away over twangy country music. His colleagues are getting on with their work, notable among them Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), struggling with motion sickness while she runs diagnostics on imaging components of the Hubble space telescope.
But danger is headed their way, and fast. A Russian satellite has detonated, the explosion creating a field of shrapnel that’s rocketing around the planet, and Explorer is right in its path. In mere moments, this routine mission will become a desperate fight for survival, as Ryan and Matt attempt to find safe passage back to Earth, or else drift off into the void.
Gravity doesn’t play out in real time, but it often feels that way. Cuarón follows the action with long, slow tracking shots that seamlessly blend live action with spectacular CGI effects. In one scene, the camera catches up with a spinning astronaut, then moves through the glass of the astronaut’s helmet before turning around to show us the spinning field of stars filling the astronaut’s vision. Then the whole shot reverses again, and all without the slightest drop in tension. It’s amazing work, bringing an extra level of immersion. If you don’t find your muscles tensing up at least once during this movie, check yourself for a pulse.
That being said, there are other extremes that bring us out of the experience. Sound – or rather, music – is the biggest culprit. Much is made of the silence of outer space, and the film is often quite accurate with its soundscape. But then, during moments of intense action, composer Steven Price’s score is ratcheted up to ear-bleeding levels. This effect will be worsened if you choose to view Gravity‘s gorgeous imagery on an IMAX or AVX screen (and you really should). Best to bring earplugs if you’re sensitive. Another sound problem is present in a scene where Ryan makes momentary radio contact with an ordinary person on the ground – the audio is awkwardly layered over a dramatic speech, killing the moment.
Though it’s likely an astronaut with Ryan’s emotional problems would never be cleared for flight duty, Bullock makes the most of the role, overcoming sadness and self-doubt to find her inner strength. She’s the solid centre of the film, and it’s likely you’ll see her again come Oscar time. Clooney’s performance is just as you’d expect from the description of Kowalski I’ve given here, and it’s perfectly fitting. No other (live) actors are seen on screen, but you’ll recognize Ed Harris’ voice as Mission Control.
You won’t want to see Gravity with a rocket scientist nearby, but a healthy suspension of disbelief, joined with its touching story and amazing visual effects, makes it one worth catching on the big screen.
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