STARRING: Sandra Bullock, George
Clooney, Ed Harris
2013, 90 Minutes, Directed by:
of the science fiction movies this year have been about special effects. Sure,
we liked Robert Downey, Jr. in
Iron Man 3 and enjoyed debating whether the continuing
Star Trek reboot worked, but what we
remembered were the battles and chases featuring Hollywood’s CGI artists
performing their digital magic. Whether it was clashing Kryptonians in
Man of Steel, robots vs. monsters in
Pacific Rim, attacks on the orbiting space
stations in Oblivion and
Elysium, or villainous special effects in
World War Z, we remembered the effects, not the people.
Gravity is a breath of
fresh air. Or, it would be, except it takes place in the vacuum of space.
Alfonso Cuarón’s film certainly has plenty of special effects, but they are in
service to the story, not the reason for it. In telling about the crisis faced
by two astronauts in space who find themselves with no way to get back to Earth,
the focus is on their dilemma and, just as importantly, the nature of the two
people facing it.
An American space crew is
working on repairs of the Hubbell Telescope when they get an emergency message
from Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, who had the similar role in Apollo
13). There’s been an accident with a Russian satellite and the debris is now
hurtling their way. In short order only two astronauts are alive: Ryan Stone
(Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Worse, their own spacecraft
is beyond repair. How will they get back? Can they get back?
the most outstanding films of the year."
The movie impresses us with the
vastness and cold emptiness of space as few films have since
2001: A Space Odyssey. Bit by bit they are presented with obstacles and
opportunities. In a taut ninety minutes you will find yourself on the end of
your seat wondering whether they are doomed or whether human ingenuity and the
will to life will prevail.
Very quickly, this becomes a
two-person story and, for Sandra Bullock, it may be one of the greatest roles of
her career. Unlike her embarrassing turn in the summer comedy Heat, where
her being attractive, intelligent, and competent were considered negatives, here
she’s an eminently qualified scientist who is respected as both a colleague and
another human being. When there are moments of panic or uncertainty, it’s not
because she’s an “uppity” woman who needs to be put in her place. It’s because
she is a highly skilled scientist thrown into a situation beyond what she was
prepared to handle.
Clooney is his usual amiable
self. His character becomes the cheerleader, gently cajoling his colleague into
believing she is capable of whatever it takes. The best “special effect” in the
film may be how he and Bullock spend nearly the entire film in “weightless”
conditions. At no time do we believe it to be anything other than real even as
we know that the entire film was shot down the gravity well here on Earth.
In literary science fiction
there is a sub-genre known as “hard SF.” These are stories that try to stick to
real science as close as possible, with no sentient robots, faster-than-light
warp drives, galactic empires, time machines, or anything else that current
science deems highly speculative at best and sheer fantasy at worst. Gravity is
that rare film that qualifies as “hard SF.” The plot may turn on some
coincidences or near misses, but such is the nature of dramatic storytelling.
What we see on screen, though, seems all too real, and that makes Gravity one of
the most outstanding films of the year.
Daniel M. Kimmel is a
veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first
novel, Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s
Guide has just been released. He teaches film at Suffolk University and
lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.
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