Assigned to a mission on the space shuttle Explorer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical officer/engineer experiencing space for the first time. The small crew includes veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a likable, little goofy astronaut on his last space mission before retiring. While the crew attempts to repair a panel outside the shuttle, Mission Control warns them of debris hurtling through space, the result of a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite. In a flash the news changes, the debris is heading straight at them. With only minutes to spare, maybe only seconds, the crew must try to get back into the Explorer and get away, but it's too late. The shuttle is ripped to shreds by the debris, killing everyone but Stone and Kowalski. They are now floating in space, Kowalski outfitted with a thruster pack, their only hope lying in reaching other nearby satellites and shuttles. They are truly alone though with no hope of rescue from anyone other than themselves.
In 2006, director Alfonso Cuaron received some much-deserved acclaim for his Children of Men, one of the best movies of the decade. Well, seven years later, here comes his follow-up, an equally impressive film that he co-wrote with his son, Jonas Cuaron. It is a good example of a brutally simple, incredibly uncomfortable story that rises above its relatively straightforward roots. Deep space is a hellish place with no gravity, hellacious temperatures and for lack of a better description....countless horrific ways to die. If something goes wrong, you're on your own. There's no cavalry to come and rescue you. That's what I'm going for in describing its simple roots. It's a survivor story unlike anything we've seen prior. Survivors of a plane crash, trapped in the freezing mountains with little supplies. Sure, it's terrifying to think of, but how about you transport that do-or-die situation to deep space? Profound in its simplicity, it works on an epically successful level.
I had issues with this movie that I'll get to later, but one thing here cannot be even remotely criticized in my opinion. This is one of the most stunning visual movies I've ever seen. It totally lives up to expectations in the 3-D department. My biggest takeaway is this; I'm assuming I'll never get to explore deep space. This is the closest I'll get to that experience. It's incredible. The opening tracking shot sets the tone, an almost 14-minute scene where the camera doesn't have an edit, simply following Stone, Kowalski and their mission outside the Explorer. It breathlessly follows the action in a sequence that is truly amazing to watch. That is the entire movie, the sense of the immensity of floating through space paired with the incredibly close, ultra-personal experience of being right there in the spacesuit with Dr. Stone. Obviously, it's CGI for the most part, but it is seamless/flawless. It never stands out, looking as natural and realistic as possible. You never question that you're watching something that isn't happening in actual space.
'Gravity' plays on a simple notion here concerning survival. Instead of falling off a cliff or drowning in the ocean, the 'death option' here is far scarier in my mind. In several instances, Stone and Kowalski's life depends on one or the other grabbing a piece of the space station as they throttle past it. A door, a handle, a piece of equipment, anything. Grab it, and you've got a slim chance of survival. Miss it? They will float on and on with no rescue until finally their air runs out, and they die a slow, painful death. Survival is one thing, this is another, something most -- if not all -- of audiences will never experience.
So here we sit, I'm five paragraphs in and haven't mentioned much about the acting. It's basically a two-person movie -- Bullock and Clooney -- with the focus exclusively on them. We see some other members of the crew (briefly, very briefly) and hear a couple voices (Ed Harris plays Mission Control). This is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney's movie. We get little snippets about who they are, their background, how they came to be on this mission, but not too much, just enough. Clooney is Clooney, calm, collected, smooth and a huge presence. I didn't think of highly as Bullock who is drawing some rave reviews for her part as the tortured Dr. Stone. I think it is a good performance, not a great one. Obviously being in the situation would produce all sorts of panic and chaos, but I thought the performance/part was a tad too whiny. We're rooting for her to make it though regardless, one individual struggling to survive.
There it is, a movie that's raking in ridiculous amounts of money three weeks into its theatrical run. The reviews are uniformly positive for a reason. While I have some issues with it, none of them are deal-breakers. I'm not ready to call it an all-time great, but it is a good, even really good movie. It offers a chance to experience deep space at its most primal, survival or death hanging in the balance.
Gravity (2013): ***/****