Gravity features constant peril and some unpleasant deaths, but exquisitely timed at 1 hour 31 minutes, it’s a non-stop thrill ride featuring incredible visuals and Oscar caliber actors giving emotionally weighty performances. It’s one of the few films out worth the full price of admission, especially in IMAX.
Fortunately, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist, gets selected to work with astronauts repairing the Hubble telescope. That’s good.
Unfortunately, she’s scared and not much of an astronaut herself, making it difficult to work 250 miles above the earth. That’s bad.
Fortunately, George Clooney is there to distract her with his good looks and charm. That’s good.
Unfortunately, they are each in self contained space suits, so he’s little more than a voice in her head. That’s bad.
Fortunately, George Clooney is a player and enjoys country music, so Dr. Stone is probably better off with the separation of outer space. That’s good.
Unfortunately, just as Dr. Stone is finishing her repair work on a ‘comm. panel’, a debris cloud from an intentionally exploded satellite hurdles towards the area Stone and Clooney’s ‘Kowalski’ are working. That’s bad.
Fortunately, they have a little time and can return to their shuttle. That’s good.
Unfortunately, as it proceeds, the debris cloud strikes a couple other satellites, and so now a huge field of debris threatens to overwhelm their space, hurdling at several hundreds of miles an hour. That’s bad…very, very bad.
Fortunately, they, well, there’s nothing good at that moment. The situation goes to hell in a heartbeat. At least Dr. Stone has George Clooney’s silky vocal mellifluence to keep her focused as the space shuttle, Hubble telescope, and the rest of the crew get obliterated, while Dr. Stone and Kowalski are blasted, untethered, into the void. That’s good. Wait, no that’s bad. Well, it’s a calamity, but they’re alive, and Kowalski has his MMU jetpack to help them maneuver back to the shuttle.
Ten minutes have passed, and the thrills are just getting started. Five minutes more go by – it’s amazing all the things there are in outer space – and before you know it, Stone and Kowalski are quite literally floating on fumes, and then quite literally dangling by a wire, every so slowly drifting away, 250 miles above the planet. The situation is so riveting, the precariousness so palpable, you’ll find yourself the passenger in a car stomping on an invisible break peddle, except in outer space your body doesn’t know which limb to throw with no imaginary button, lever, or peddle to thrash at, repeatedly, pointlessly. All you can do is cringe and recoil in your seat.
Gravity is a woman versus nature survival story and character study, presented in the same format, a continuous series of rapid-fire turns of fate, used in the classic children’s story “Fortunately” ( Remy Charlip, 1964) which might be more familiar to modern audiences as the same-veined (or counterfeit, if you like) “That’s Good! That’s Bad!” (Margery Cuyler, 1993). Set in the currently last remaining terrifying wasteland: outer space, like Bullock’s sleeper hit Speed, the threat presents early in the film, and once it starts, hits full throttle and doesn’t let up until the final minutes.
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Director Alfonso CuarÃ³n uses several effective storytelling techniques. Even before anything goes wrong, Cuaron, like the beats of a metronome, continuously intermingles the awe and beauty of outer space, the charm of the characters, and the spectacle of science, with subtle cues to impending catastrophe. This includes basic literary techniques, like very ‘on the nose’ foreshadowing: “Houston, I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission,” spoken repeatedly, but in jest. Then, there’s that ethereal voice (Ed Harris, ironically voicing mission control) asking Stone to advise on her condition as ‘medical’ is observing alarming data from her ECG. Her name, “Stone,” and having undiagnosed heart problems are more meaningful than just portending danger in the near future. Then there’s the always charming Kowalski, telling one terrible, soul crushing story after another, with a reassuring warmth and cheeriness in his voice. Even her project isn’t working as expected. These subtle beats, like the ripples in a puddle signaling an impending Tyranosaurus attack, establish, with incredible effect, a sense of unease in the otherwise heavenly paradise on display.
The movie’s visuals are breathtaking. If IMAX is an option, it’s a fully immersive experience and perhaps the best use of 3D yet put to film. The human eye has difficulty observing 3D movies because the lens is automatically trained to focus to a certain distance when both eyes are pointed at that distance. For example, when the eyes are both pointing out straight, almost parallel, the lens focuses to infinity. When the eyes are nearly crossed, the lenses automatically focus as close as possible. With film, the lens must remain focused to the distance of the screen while the eyes continuously shift from one virtual distance to another. It takes time and effort for the lens to continuously train on the screen distance, instead of the expected distance the eyes’ position normally requires. For 3D movies to work well the motion on screen must be slower than normal: it gives the eyes the little extra time needed to process the abnormal viewing cues. Cuaron has been especially mindful of this need, and a space walk is the ideal situation suited to it. As a result, the movie looks stunning. The film opens with a view of planet earth, rotating slowly in the distance. The camera, like the actors, tend to move in slow, sweeping arcs.
The sound engineering is also well designed and executed. Environmental sounds are properly transmitted through solid materials, usually their suits, most of the time. It stands out that during the debris impact, several explosions are heard as if transmitted through air, but otherwise, most sound is either muffled, or over the radio. Alarms and buzzers notably make use of a theater’s surround sound system – a joyous experience few movies, even today, properly deliver. Even without dialogue or action, or sound effects, one could sit happily through the film just taking in the view. Thankfully, there’s a good movie in there too.
A few scientific facts might give viewers pause. If you follow the jump, you can read about some of these concerns, which could distract from your enjoyment of the film.
All images and video copyright their respective owners. Gravity, c 2013 Warner Bros.
While being grounded in modern science, a few issues strain the story’s credibility. NASA Astrounaut, and media darling, Mike Massimino affirmed to abcNews’ Carrie Halperin, as well as David Muir and others, that “the detail in Gravity…somebody took a lot of time to make it very realistic… the accuracy of the shuttle, and the telescope, and the space suits, and the views are very, very accurate.” He’s also commented that the tools used, having been specially designed, and even personally labeled, are completely faithful reproductions.
Even so, aren’t controlled decommissions of satellites designed to cause them to fall to earth and burn up in the atmosphere? Second, objects not in fixed orbits, like the ISS (orbiting at approximately 100 miles lower than Hubble, by the way), circumnavigates the earth around 15 times a day. In other words, at over 17 thousand miles an hour. Would not an astronaut jaunting about in the void, moseying on over to the ISS, when coming into contact with it, well, get splattered? Must be one heck of a jetpack! Oh wait, except they were only used in 1984 and then retired, except once for testing purposes in 1994. And a BSE? There’s only one BS satellite (Japanese broadcast satellite) designated E, launched in 1978. Apparently Kowalski has one heck of an encyclopedic memory.
The movie rarely stops to take a breath, so in fairness, it may have ruined the flow to stop and explain how many orbiting objects really are up there (about 30,000), and the vast range of orbits (about 80 to 22,000 miles high), or how fast an MMU can propel a human during Extra Vehicular Activities. (It’s pretty fast actually – zero to 60 in about 0.9 seconds! So it is possible, if you want to try and hop a space station while maneuvering at 17.5 thousand miles per hour…)
At least flames (sometimes) form the shape of a ball, as they should. While the movie doesn’t explain how many satellites there are, and their relative orbits, SpaceToday.org will tell you. And here’s a cool video depicting them: