by Thom Yee
“One tiny crack in the hull, and our blood boils in thirteen seconds. Solar flare might crop up, cook us in our seats. And wait till you’re sitting pretty with a case of Andorian shingles. See if you’re still so relaxed when your eyeballs are bleeding! Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.” ~ Leonard McCoy, noted physician
And perhaps truer words (except the Andorian thing) were never spoken.
It’s probably almost impossible to fully understand actually being in space without literally going there (and that’s a lot of adverbs). We’ve read, heard, and seen (and possibly even attempted to write) science fiction stories set in space, most of which, in one way or another, ignore or bypass many of the basics of what we know. There’s nothing to keep us, no gravity when we really might need it, our inertia carrying us endlessly forward. There’s nothing for us to breathe, no atmosphere to protect us, just hard vacuum, so absolutely, big, bulky suits are a must. In space no one can hear you scream, let alone hear all the explosions of the spectacular space battle of our fantasies (that we’ve no doubt imagined ourselves the rebel heroes of).
Gravity is that rarest of films, a true space movie that doesn’t over-dramatize or over-romanticize, that doesn’t use its setting for a story about a conflict from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. It’s a space movie that draws its drama, tension, and meaning from little more than the space it operates in, because that’s all it needs. And though Gravity owes a lot of its success so far to its all-star cast (of two), it’s still heartening to find that such a profoundly simple film about space has found such a wide audience thus far.
The funny thing about Gravity is that, if you were paying attention and regularly going to movies over this past summer — watching the trailers, seeing the ads, catching the clips — you’ve known about the film and seen it coming for a while. Through a strong marketing campaign and casting hinged on the screen presences of two of our strongest contemporary actors, we’ve almost begun to form a relationship with these two astronauts after so many previews and snippets, all with breathtaking scenery, measured pacing, and exhilaratingly terrifying shots of disaster in space. It’s had a longer and more visible gestation period than most movies are afforded, and after so many months and commercials, I found myself thinking about astronauts George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as huge screw-ups who must be bad at their jobs. All we’ve really seen up until actually watching Gravity is Bullock spinning around, out of control after some debris hits and Clooney telling her to calm down, so for most of the summer I referred to the film as “b*tches be crazy in space”. Which, to be fair, is a little unfair (and, potentially, incredibly offensive), but it is a film that’s built up for so long around the simple concept of “astronauts in trouble” that you might start to associate the two almost exclusively with screwing things up.
I grew up in the age of no one caring about NASA, a space age that is perhaps best typified by the Simpsons episode, “Deep Space Homer” and Bart’s pleas to change the channel from “another boring space launch”, with NASA analysts’ primary concern being measuring Nielsen ratings of NASA events on TV. Today, at least in spirit, the idea of space exploration has taken a drastic shift back to the aspirational, with figureheads like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, space Commander Chris Hadfield, and even Bill Nye not only further exposing us to the idea of space exploration, but why it should be such an important part of our future. And that’s the kind of space Gravity excels in.
The plot of Gravity is somewhat generic, but that’s an important part of the experience. Though Bullock and Clooney fully embody their roles, they play universal enough roles that most of us can find at least a part of ourselves inside of them. Through Bullock’s Ryan Stone, a bio-medical engineer and first-time astronaut, we’re meant to see ourselves on this journey. The pain of her backstory, having lost a child to an everyday accident, represents the type of loss many of us have experienced through nothing more than the circumstances of our lives, and it’s through her struggles in this story that we fully stand with and beside her during her various triumphs. Clooney, as the unflappable Matt Kowalski, a space commander on his final expedition, acts as our guide, both literally and spiritually as we’re pulled through the film. He plays his part with such confidence, such even-handed steadiness, [spoiler alert] that when he’s lost, the feeling of heartbreak is genuine. Essentially, the two are caught in a shower of debris (alongside their crew who wind up playing almost no role other than to avoid the incredulity of a two-person NASA mission) caused by a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite. So no, the whole thing wasn’t Stone or Kowalski’s fault.
I’m not normally an advocate of 3D or sitting anywhere other than the back of a theatre, but Gravity is one of the few films I recommend seeing in IMAX 3D and from a moderate seating position. At its best, Gravity completely envelops you in its world, taking you on a journey that, at least momentarily, robs you of your usual feelings of apathy and cynicism. Though the situations our heroes face seem hopeless, it remains an entirely hopeful film, and it completely makes you forget that it’s only a 90-minute movie. When I think of Bullock’s screams as she perilously, uncontrollably floats through space, even after being momentarily saved by Clooney, it actually brought me back to childhood and learning how to swim. While that makes sense conceptually, it’s rare for a movie to bring me back to a childhood sensation. The whole movie works on a highly visceral level, and even though I’m, if anything, a 3D detractor, there were a few scenes with debris flying everywhere that I instinctively ducked down to avoid.
Gravity is one of those films that will be endlessly broken down for its technical brilliance. It’s received almost universal praise since its release, and even its most fervent detractors would have to admit that, on almost every level that matters, it’s superbly polished and technically sound. The film begins with a shot that introduces us to the film’s characters and mission, coolly layering details of their situation into the frame before disaster strikes, all accomplished with amazing detail, and then you realize that the whole sequence has been one continuous shot for the past 17 minutes. It’s a remarkable achievement, as is the entire rest of the film, and, from a certain perspective, it almost makes a mockery of more recent space action scenes without directly belittling them.
Broadly speaking, recommending for or against a movie is largely about instinct. You can analyze, parse, and pontificate on a movie’s acting, direction, dialogue, cinematography, and story — most of which are working at or near the highest level in Gravity — but why you like a movie, why it really sticks with you is often something much less tangible. I would encourage almost everyone to make sure to see Gravity while it’s in theatres for no greater reasons than it leaves you feeling hopeful and it wouldn’t make sense not to. Space may be aptly described as danger wrapped in darkness and silence; it may be seen as foolhardy to focus on what’s out there instead of what’s wrong down here; and it may have lost a bit of romanticism as missions shift further away from space colonies and more towards unmanned flights; but it’s a place, technically and spiritually, that we can learn a lot from. And as the best stories, like Gravity, tell us, it’s a place worth going to, even if things don’t always work out.
Gravity final score: 9.5
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