With Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris. Written by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language. 90 minutes.
Most 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 “Wolverine” and “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’re 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 Hubble Telescope when they get an emergency message from Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris, who had the similar role in “Apollo 13,” and who played astronaut John Glenn in “The Right Stuff.”). 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 space craft is beyond repair. How will they get back? Can they get back?
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 live will prevail.
Very quickly this becomes a two-person play, and, for Sandra Bullock, it may be one of the greatest roles of her career. Unlike her embarrassing turn in the summer comedy “The 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 a fellow 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 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 lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.