Our “feature” last night was Gravity, a highly acclaimed 2013 space-travel movie (Charles argued that it couldn’t really be called science fiction because all the technology depicted in it exists now) directed by Alfonso Cuarón and co-written by him and his brother Jonás. It was part of the backlog of interesting-sounding recent films Charles and I have been accumulating on DVD but haven’t had a chance to watch because he has so few evenings off work and modern movies tend to be unreasonably long — though this one was an exception. When I looked it up on imdb.com before screening it to get the running time I found it was only 91 minutes — and of that the closing credit roll was seven minutes, so there were only 84 minutes of actual movie. This was a good thing, too, because the premise of the film was so simple and basic that was exactly the right length for it: enough time to sustain suspense and include action, not enough time to get the feeling the filmmakers were “milking it.” The film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts on the space shuttle Explorer who are doing a routine outside maintenance job on the shuttle’s exterior when catastrophe strikes: a rogue Russian space probe hits one of Russia’s own satellites, sending lethal clouds of debris through space that, without an atmosphere to slow them down, knock astronauts Ryan Stone (Bullock — and the gender ambiguity of the first name might suggest her character was originally written for a man, but the Cuarón hermanos intended her to be played by a woman from the get-go; indeed, they originally wanted her to be Latina and played by Angelina Jolie, but the studio, Warner Bros., nixed that because Jolie’s salary would be too high and no one would believe a Latina astronaut anyway) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) off their perch on the spacecraft and send them floating into space. Kowalski grabs a tether rope and, against Stone’s wishes, ties the two of them together, and after the 10 minutes of exposition in which we learn that, the entire film is taken up with the struggle of the two astronauts to stay alive and get to a nearby re-entry vehicle, either a Russian Soyuz on the International Space Station or a Chinese Shenzou on China’s own space station — which in this movie are all lined up in a neat little row.
This is good because it means the astronauts can relatively easily get from one to the other; alas, it’s bad because so can the debris. The debris destroys the shuttle and kills everyone on it (meaning that when the ground control voice at Houston — played by Ed Harris, who had a similar role in Apollo 13 as well as playing an astronaut himself in The Right Stuff — advised Stone and Kowalski to return to the shuttle, it was a good thing for them that they disobeyed), and also slams into the face of a third astronaut who was outside the spacecraft, Shariff (we never see his face — he’s just a floating body in a spacesuit and, briefly, the voice of actor Phaldut Sharma) — the shot of his face with a huge gouge out of it is by far the most frightening, or at least gruesome, moment in this film. Midway through the film [spoiler alert!] Kowalski loses control and goes floating into space; Stone offers to go after him but he takes the stiff-upper-lip attitude of a classic movie hero, telling her it’s going to take all the resources (fuel, oxygen, etc.) to save herself. She finds that one of the re-entry vehicles on the International Space Station is missing — obviously the Russian astronauts used it to get back to earth themselves — and the other’s parachute has already popped open, rendering it useless for re-entry, but she can fly it to the Chinese station and hopefully commandeer their re-entry vehicle, which is the same design as the Russian Soyuz. (Stone tells Kowalski before he dies that she’s trained on simulations of the Russian spacecraft, but she crashed the simulator every time she flew it. “That’s what simulators are for,” he laconically replies.) There’s an odd scene in the second half of the film where Kowalski is seen as a living character again, but it turns out to be just an hallucination of Stone’s — and according to imdb.com George Clooney wrote his brief “resurrection” scene himself.
Gravity is quite a good movie if you can accept that it’s hardly ground-breaking science fiction; Alfonso Cuarón acknowledged a debt to the 1969 sci-fi rescue film Marooned — though that one was 132 minutes, had a much larger supporting cast (it cut back and forth between the trapped astronauts, the pilot of the crew that was supposed to rescue them, and Mission Control) and simply wasn’t as taut or action-filled as Gravity. Also, as Cuarón noted, the makers of Marooned didn’t have access to computer-generated imagery (CGI); apparently 80 percent of Gravity was filmed with CGI, compared with 60 percent of James Cameron’s Avatar, and the entire movie was made with the actors in front of a green screen. Charles and I couldn’t help but parallel it to The Martian, also a person-lost-in-space movie (more accurately, a person-lost-in-an-uninhabitable-environment-on-another-planet movie), but even though The Martian (unlike Gravity) was too long for its own good and it was hamstrung by Matt Damon’s severe limitations as an actor, it was also a richer work with more interesting dramatic conflicts than just a central figure being literally whirled around in space by forces beyond her control and trying desperately to survive. One also wonders, while watching Gravity, why there’s so much noise in the film when, as the initial titles helpfully explain, sound doesn’t carry in space — they require atmosphere — though the explanation on imdb.com is that when spacesuit-clad astronauts bump into space hardware, as they do quite a lot in this film, the suits vibrate and that’s what the astronauts are hearing. There are even a couple of scenes in which we hear Sandra Bullock breathe heavily inside her spacesuit just as Keir Dullea did in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (still far and away the best science-fiction film ever made, and perhaps the best film ever made, period) — where the abrupt cut-ins between the interior of Dullea’s space pod, where there was sound, and the exterior, where there wasn’t, was far more chilling than anything Cuarón came up with in this film.
What los hermanos Cuarón sought to do in Gravity was make an outer-space thriller which would keep us on the edge of our seats wondering what was going to happen next and keep the plight of Sandra Bullock’s character — no matter that in a spacesuit one person looks pretty much like another and it’s only through the close-ups shot through the spacesuits’ visors that we could tell Sandra Bullock and George Clooney apart — front and center, and given the tendency of modern filmmakers to detach from their characters and expect us to observe them like lab rats, I won’t fault Alfonso Cuarón and his brother for making a movie in which the entire issue is will Ryan Stone survive and how much improvising she will have to do in order to get back to Earth safely. In a sense Gravity is Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and the film Sean Penn made from it transported to outer space — as, to an even greater extent, was The Martian — though Krakauer’s protagonist was an individual on his own, untethered to the demands and judgments (good or bad) of his Mission Controllers back home; and the psychological and philosophical hints dropped in Into the Wild about what made the central character “run” are barely there in The Martian and utterly absent in Gravity. Still, Alfonso Cuarón was out to make a thrilling film that would keep us on the edge of our seats wondering if the heroine would survive (while having enough in common with a normal mainstream Hollywood blockbuster we were pretty clear in our own minds that she would survive — indeed, one of the film’s most haunting shots is the one at the end, in which she emerges from the Chinese re-entry capsule and swims from the site of her splashdown to a beach — and neither she nor we have the foggiest notion where on Earth she is), and he did that brilliantly.