Tuesday 15 October 2013

Movie Review: Gravity (2013)

A lost-in-space two-person epic, Gravity is a spellbinding exploration of survival at the most primordial level.

The crew of the space shuttle Explorer is orbiting Earth while repairing the Hubble telescope. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a mission specialist, a scientist on her first space flight. She is grappling with the repair work along with fellow space walker Sharif (Paul Sharma) while veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zooms around them wearing a thruster pack. Mission Control (voice of Ed Harris) informs the Explorer crew that the Russians have just destroyed a nearby malfunctioning satellite, creating debris. This eventually triggers an unintentional catastrophic chain reaction of satellite explosions, and a large and destructive debris field heads straight to Explorer.

The warning is received too late. Sharif and the on-board crew are killed and the vehicle is destroyed. Stone and Kowalski are the only survivors, drifting in space and running out of oxygen, cut off from all communication back to Earth. Kowalski uses his thruster pack to rescue Stone from an uncontrollable spin, and tethered together they try to make their way to the International Space Station, hoping to use a Soyuz module to return to Earth. On the way to the ISS Kowalski calms down the frantic Stone by getting her to talk about her life, and she reveals that her four year old daughter died in a playground accident. They close in on the ISS only to find it partially destroyed, and despite her best efforts Stone is soon detached from Kowalski and left on her own, deep in space, with no rescue in sight.

Alfonso Cuaron directs Gravity from a story co-written with his son Jonas, and it is 90 minutes of cinematic bliss. In glorious 3D, the vastness of space comes alive, the emptiness overwhelming, the loneliness crushing. The fragility of humanity's deceptively routine space excursions comes into sharp focus when everything goes wrong, and equipment worth millions of dollars is reduced to space dust in seconds. Stone and Kowalski are alone together, and later, Stone is just alone. Really alone. Her fight for survival is a test of individual will to stay alive in the most harrowing of circumstances, and Cuaron creates an ethereal journey for Stone to navigate.

Despite all the bulky equipment, the film quickly humanizes Stone. As soon as we meet her she is feeling nauseous, her space rookie status all too obvious as she struggles with the repair assignment, her demeanour fluctuating between assertive scientist and fish out of water. Later Kowalski coaxes out of her the personal tragedy of a dead young daughter, Stone now a woman burying herself in her work in a failed attempt to bury her grief. As her space journey goes all wrong, Stone has every reason to give up hope, give in to the catastrophic circumstances, and get ready to reunite with her daughter, but that is not how the human spirit has triumphed against existential threats over the millennia.

Sandra Bullock owns Gravity, her performance filled with vulnerability, determination, uncertainty, self-doubt, and resourcefulness. Acting through space suits, helmets, with hardly any dialogue, and against a backdrop of destroyed technology and a majestic floating Earth, Bullock cuts through all the distractions, and finds the simplicity of a woman in big trouble who needs to stop hyperventilating long enough to gather herself and improvise a course to safety.

George Clooney reliably plays his usual cocky and confident persona, but Matt Kowalski is the secondary character, providing essential support but ultimately moving aside and allowing Stone the scientist and mother to determine her fate.

While creating his own aesthetic, Cuaron salutes previous space classics, with strong nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and Apollo 13. Gravity plays on the same theme of human endurance and ingenuity pushed to new magnificence when confronted by calamity. As astronaut Ryan Stone finds new ways to surprise herself on her quest for survival, Gravity's mystical pull is irresistible.

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