The closest you can get to going into space – and why you should feel very happy about that.
The words “Living in space is impossible” fade from the screen as a spectacular view of the Earth appears. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is hastily upgrading the Hubble telescope outside of a space shuttle while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zips around testing a rocket pack. Faster than you can Stanley Kubrick, a disasterous cloud of high-speed debris destroys the telescope, spacecraft and everything else in its path. With communications satellites included among the casualties of the event, Ryan finds herself adrift with no means of propulsion, running out of oxygen, and totally alone… and that’s just the first ten minutes of Gravity.
This isn’t Star Wars, Firefly, Star Trek, or any number of space operas where it’s easy to live in space thanks to the “whatever” device. Everything you have in outer space is, as Yoda said, only what you take with you; in the case of a catastrophe, it’s also whatever you can find and get to. While primarily a tale of survival in this harsh environment (see Tom Hanks in Apollo 13 for details), this is also the story of courage in the face of adversity, not just finding the means but also the WILL to survive – even when it would be far simpler to just close your eyes, fall asleep and be done. While a few moments have been sensationalized to achieve this effect, director Alfonso Cuarón pulls off what may be the most spectacular and most accurate portrayal of how and why things work and fail in space – not to mention why NASA could really use a bigger budget.
Forget about George Clooney; his character is little more than plot device. The focus is on Sandra Bullock’s character, a technician with a six-month astronaut training course full of things no one imagines they’ll ever need to know, right up until you do. The plot is simple enough: stay ahead of the compounding disastrous conditions until you can find a safe way back to Earth. The real guts of the movie, however, is the emotional rollercoaster of her character trying to figure out how to do that and why she should even bother to try.
There is a scene a little over a third through the film where Bullock’s character earns a moment to take her helmet off, but she doesn’t stop there. She strips her spacesuit off completely, which doesn’t sound like the kind of thing anyone would do that isn’t sure of the conditions inside (“Is there air? YOU don’t know!”) After a moment, however, it becomes clear that removing the suit is a kind of rebirth as she curls into a fetal position; she’s safe. By the time everything is set in motion and an impossible chance for life comes down to a pair of fingers crossed, the audience is sitting next to Ryan, squeezed into a claustrophobic metal capsule plummeting through the atmosphere as the world is on fire around it. If your heart isn’t in your throat and your hands aren’t gripping the armrests by that point, you should really get out more often.
And yes, seeing it on IMAX and in 3D is finally and absolutely worth the price of admission.
(a four skull recommendation out of four)