Release Date: October 4, 2013
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Writers: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Stars: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Gravity feels like someone commissioned Ray Bradbury to write the most epic, intense Universal Studios simulator ride. It is a harrowing 90-minute visceral experience that immerses the audience in the experience of floating through space untethered while desperately trying to find a way to survive.
In terms of plot, the film is incredibly simple. It is essentially a two person play taking place in one location. It’s just that those two people are researcher Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and that one location is outer space. Stone, a medical researcher with only six months of NASA training under her belt, is sent on a mission to install her experimental technology into the Hubble telescope. Kowalski is the seasoned astronaut pilot overseeing the mission (or, more precisely, the guy circling around her in his space chair telling colorful anecdotes to her and mission control while she works).
A Russian satellite explodes, causing a chain reaction that puts our heroes on a collision course with a large cluster of debris. While Stone attempted to get back to the spacecraft, she becomes untethered from the ship. As Kowalski goes to bring her back in, the debris compromises their ship, leaving it inoperable. To further complicate things, they lose communication with mission control. The rest of the film is the story of two people lost in space, attempting to find a way back to Earth.
Visually, the film is an amazing achievement. Perhaps more so than any other director, Alfonso Cuarón seamlessly captures the feeling of floating weightlessly through space. The opening sequence is breathtaking. Using long takes with as few edits as possible, Cuarón rotates the camera around, creating a fluidity with his camera moves that gives a feeling of continual motion. There is no uncanny valley feeling. The special effects are done so well that you never question the idea that these two characters are in outer space. This film is a game changer in terms of effects.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how beautiful a film looks if there’s no connection to the characters. Luckily, Cuarón gives us two compelling leads with rich backstories played by two strong actors.
Clooney absolutely nails the role of Kowalski, who is everything you want in an astronaut. He’s cocky and charming and full of colorful stories about his exploits back on Earth, but he’s also the sort of calm and rational expert that you absolutely want as your guide when you are in a crisis. He’s the guy who is going to get you back home safely. But he’s also the guy who is going to use the story of getting you home to score free drinks and to impress pretty women in a hole in the wall bar somewhere.
Bullock’s character is more of an audience surrogate through this saga. She isn’t an astronaut. She only has the bare minimum training. She’s scared and unfocused and stumbling her way through all of this. That makes her much more relatable to the viewer, who would be similarly panicked and inept.
Stone’s backstory is absolutely heartbreaking. You learn early in the film that she lost her daughter to an absolute senseless tragedy – she fell down on the playground at school and hit her head. She was disconnected from the world long before she ever left Earth. And, in a (not so terribly subtle) sense, the film is a journey for her to reenter society and to start living again.
I also really enjoyed Ed Harris’ work as the unseen voice of mission control. It’s a small, thankless role and it would have been easy for Cuarón to just throw a generic, unknown voice into the role. But giving the part to Harris, who has a pleasing, colorful voice and the acting chops to make the most out of a tiny cameo gives the role a certain je ne sais quoi that I really appreciated.
All around, this film is an impressive work. Really, the only thing that bothered me about it was how forced the symbolism visual tricks came across at times. There is a shot halfway through the film where Bullock gets aboard the International Space Station and strips herself of her spacesuit, then balls up into the fetal position. Cuarón composes the shot to make it look like Bullock has returned to the womb. Visually, it is an intriguing shot and one rich with subtext, but it takes a lot of work narratively to make the shot make sense and ultimately it ends up being overly distracting and feeling forced. There are several other shots throughout the film that suffer the same problem. It feels like at times Cuarón gets in his own way – his desire to do something visually and symbolically compelling coming at the expense of the overall flow of the story.
Still, these are ultimately minor complaints. The film itself is such a unique and beautiful experience that I highly recommend seeing it on the biggest screen possible. It is as close as most of us are likely to get to the feeling of drifting through space.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.