Gravity is a breathtaking, harrowing experience of a film, partly thanks to the incredible special effects work utilized to bring the film’s setting to life in a realistic way, but mostly thanks to a tremendous performance from the film’s lead, Sandra Bullock.
After a routine mission to install upgrades and modifications to the Hubble Space Telescope goes catastrophically wrong, Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his final mission in space, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first, find themselves the only survivors of their space shuttle crew. Adrift with dwindling oxygen and precious few options for getting back down to solid ground safely, Kowalski and Stone focus on staying connected, literally and figuratively, as they slowly journey toward what they hope is their way home.
It might not sound like much to build a feature film around, but so much of what makes Gravity special and so spectacular is the nature of the setting in which it all takes place, which is of course a place the average audience member might never get to experience themselves. We have an idea of what space is like from science classes, news and magazine reports about missions from the Space Shuttle era, the Discovery Channel and reality-based science fiction. But director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), working from a screenplay he co-wrote with his son Jonás, tries to put us out there with his characters, at times situating the narrative lens within the helmets of the wayward astronauts so that we see what they’re seeing. Everything Cuarón shows the audience and has his characters experience drives home the cold, stark reality that governs being in space: long-term survival without a lifeline of some kind is virtually impossible. The fact that he makes that point as well as he does, and the visuals are as beautiful and at times terrifying as they are, is a testament to the filmmaker’s commitment to his vision and some truly creative work on the part of his production designers and crew. Gravity will come up quite often in the Oscar discussion early next year when it comes to the technical categories, or at least it should.
But none of that special effects wizardry and creative innovation would matter much if the characters at the heart of this story weren’t compelling or interesting. After all, Hollywood cranks out sci-fi actioners and thrillers with tons of money poured into explosions and eye-popping special effects every year and little attention paid to true characterization or character-driven storytelling — it’s just what makes money these days, usually. That’s how Gravity stands apart: the attention paid to true characterization, and how it drives the plot just as much as the story’s setting does.
As the film’s primary viewpoint character, Dr. Stone comes into focus for the audience as someone carrying with her a considerable emotional weight, and a forced disconnect with her emotions in order to continue functioning. Thus, as the story goes on and her plight forces her to confront the sorrow and pain she’s compartmentalized away as she faces her mortality, Gravity becomes not just a story of her physical survival, but also one of emotional survival and rebirth.
The challenge for Sandra Bullock as a performer here is not just to make Dr. Stone’s struggles relateable and believable – that’s the task of an actor in any performance. It is to do so under the particular conditions necessitated by the special effects called for in the screenplay. The audience experiences so much of Gravity‘s 90 minute running time with Cuarón’s cameras focused tightly on Bullock’s expressions of tension, fear, panic and despair, all constrained inside an astronaut’s helmet. She meets that challenge and surmounts it with perhaps one of her most nuanced and riveting performances — her disconnect, her terror, her sorrow, and by the end her resolve to survive, all are rendered with the kind of skill that makes what we know to be choreographed acting seem genuinely spontaneous and heartfelt. It’s her performance that truly carries the film.
It should be said that Clooney accomplishes the same feat playing Kowalski. However, his character — seasoned, effortlessly charming, unflappable in a crisis situation — is a type that we’ve seen him play before, and thus his work here may not be as highly regarded as Bullock’s will or should be when the time comes for pundits to start predicting winners during awards season.
Together, these two performers, set on-screen against a backdrop of stars and seemingly-infinite space, with nothing but their voices often filling the silence that pervades a place where there’s no air to carry sound, bring to life an unforgettable story that fits in finest traditions of thoughtful, character-driven science fiction. Gravity is a film that simply must be experienced in theaters — don’t wait to rent this one. Go, and be ready to be amazed.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
Running Time: 90 minutes
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.