Part drama, part thriller, “Gravity” defies expectations. It’s tempting to call the film a space epic — because on one level it is — but it becomes much more by examining the will to survive and what roles are played by fear, sadness, isolation and dumb luck.
In the wake of a horrific space catastrophe, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and NASA Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are set adrift in space. They are protected only by their spacesuits and aided only by their wits and a partially drained jet pack. While attempting to reach the safety of an abandoned space station, the pair chatter incessantly. It’s annoying until we realize talking not only creates a sense of connection beyond the fragile tether binding them to together, but also calms them.
During the continuing disaster, we learn that Matt, a good-time Charlie who loves being the center of attention, is more thoughtful than he appears, while Stone; who seems fearful, stubborn and ambiguous; possesses mighty reserves of untapped, perhaps even untried, strength.
Eventually the pair becomes separated, leaving Stone, a mission scientist with little engineering or piloting experience, to figure out what to do each time her efforts to reach safety are thwarted by unexpected setbacks. While these events would test even the most knowledgeable, the mightiest battle she wages is to hold on and never give in or let go.
A visual masterpiece from start to finish, the film, written by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas, presented technical challenges that required thinking outside the box. To simulate weightlessness, Bullock was harnessed to 12 thin wires spread across her body. Though invisible on camera, puppeteers were tasked with manipulating the wires to help Bullock achieve her choreographed movements.
Ensconced inside a spacesuit for much of the film, Bullock’s face is like a goldfish framed against the endless black, providing our sole conduit to her character’s myriad of emotions.
It is possible ascribing a less desperate back story to Stone might have held us closer, but Bullock powers through this cliché, never losing our interest. Her success in carrying a full 60 minutes of the film’s 90-minute runtime merits an Academy Award nomination and perhaps more.
For his part, Alfonso Cuaron should earn a best director nomination and another for best special effects. Through a combination of his eye for aesthetics and pioneering techniques, the director allows us to participate in an experience very few will actually realize, giving viewers a chance to drink in lyrical beauty and feel the loneliness that accompanies low earth orbit.