Gravity – A Review

There are people that are fascinated by outer space and all the mysteries that it holds: is there other intelligent life out there? What scientific discoveries do the cosmos hold? Some kids dream of becoming astronauts and going into space; enough people have this dream that many countries and companies have considered venturing into space tourism, which would allow civilians the chance to go into space. Hell, NBC is planning on a reality show that would allow two winners to be launched into the great unknown via a Virgin Galactic flight. To conquer the final frontier and to go boldly where very few men (and women) have gone before is the ultimate quest for many.

To quote the great Bob Dylan, “That ain’t me babe.”

Much like the Olympics, I am a total killjoy when someone expresses an interest in something as All-American as exploring the cosmos. I just don’t care. I think constellations are kind of cool, but I really have no desire to go up into space and poke around. I saw the movie Space Camp as a kid and while that caused my peers to have temporary dreams of becoming the next John Glenn, I thought it all looked like way too much work. I’m sure the fact that my class watched the Challenger explosion live on TV in class didn’t exactly make space exploration appealing to me either; once you’ve watched people blow up, the bloom is kind of off the rose. Plus I tried that freeze dried astronaut ice cream and it was disgusting; I’m not going anywhere that doesn’t have good ice cream.

So when I first saw the previews for the new film Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to go see it. “Eh – more space stuff” I thought to myself. Not interested. I’ve tolerated a few franchises that are set in outer space, but they aren’t usually my idea to watch them. I wasn’t sure how they were going to make a movie out of what I saw of the Gravity clips anyway; Sandra Bullock screaming as she drifted off into nothingness seemed like it would be a pretty short film. Thanks, but no thanks, Gravity.

As the release date for the film crept up, however, there was a positive buzz around this film that I just couldn’t ignore. At first, I dismissed this as the enthusiasm of people like I described above – that are fascinated by all things space related. But as the din continued from nearly every critic that I know, I realized that this film was being universally praised. A film that hovers at 98% on Rotten Tomatoes is a film that I can’t exactly ignore. An hour and a half runtime was what finally sold me; on the off chance that I was swimming against the critical stream on the film, at least I wouldn’t be wasting a lot of my time. I could probably handle 90 minutes in space; I needed to see what all the hoopla was about.

While Gravity did nothing to change my opinion about space – if anything it reinforced my feeling that it is a pretty terrifying place – the critics weren’t wrong. Gravity is a visually breathtaking film that is probably the closest that many of us will come to venturing outside the Earth’s atmosphere. Strong performances from Bullock and Clooney – Bullock in particular – paired with the pure beauty and realism of the cinematography and special effects make Gravity a film that is definitely worth seeing.

The premise of the film is pretty simple, yet terrifying: Bullock and Clooney are part of a team sent to space to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Clooney is a seasoned astronaut who is out on his last mission, while Bullock is a medical engineer who is making her first shuttle mission. What should be a fairly routine trip becomes a nightmare when an accident from another quadrant of the cosmos sets off a chain reaction resulting in debris hurling at them and their ship. With their shuttle destroyed and their crew killed, Bullock and Clooney must figure out how to survive with their limited oxygen and limited options.

There is no denying that this is a stunning film to watch. It is absolutely gorgeously shot, with many long panning shots that are technically amazing. The director and cinematographer’s choices really give the viewer the impression of being in space with Clooney and Bullock, and just how terrifying it would be to be lost out there. I don’t know how they did much of what they did in the effect department, nor do I really want to know; the results were so convincing to me that I almost felt like I was floating along with them. Frankly I think the cinematography Oscar race is officially over – just hand the statue to Gravity and be done with it. I can’t imagine anything else that will even be in this league. It’s just so impressive. It’s worth going to see the film for this alone.

Though Clooney receives co-top billing on Gravity, this is really Bullock’s film. I was a little skeptical when I heard that she was cast; I generally like her, but despite her Oscar win I am not totally convinced that she is a great actress. But she is tremendously likable and that works to Gravity’s advantage. You are instantly invested in the fact that she is in peril because you like her and want her to be OK. Bullock totally rises to the occasion in this film and does a tremendous job of taking the audience on an emotional as well as physical journey. She manages to make the viewer feel everything that she is feeling and effectively overcomes a somewhat emotionally manipulative backstory that her character is saddled with. Both actors successfully sell dialogue that is a little hokey and cheesy. I don’t know that any dialogue could really meet the visual splendor and situation that the characters find themselves in, but the writers of Gravity really didn’t appear to try all that hard to rise to the challenge. Clooney, in particular, has to cash in some of his coolness chips to make the quips and wisecracks he delivers not sound completely ridiculous. It all mostly works because of the inherent charm and charisma of Clooney and Bullock, but don’t go into Gravity expecting well-honed dialogue. The script just isn’t all that great.

Some other quick thoughts:

  • It’s a minor quibble, but I am skeptical that astronauts wear as little under their space suits as Bullock had on. I’m sure that it is hot in there, but surely NASA would require more than a pair of boy shorts and a tank top (and no footwear whatsoever). But bravo to Bullock – she’s in fantastic shape.
  • I did not see Gravity in 3-D because I am cheap, but I regret that decision. As impressive as the film is in 2-D, I can only imagine how impressive it is using 3-D technology. This is the type of film that 3-D was made for.
  • That is indeed Ed Harris as the voice of Houston.
  • Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson went on a Twitter rant yesterday about all the scientific inaccuracies in the film. He raises some valid points. Always best to defer to an astrophysicist in these matters. Time also weighs in on the scientific flaws of the film, while Mashable writes about 5 things that the movie gets right.
  • This seems like as good a place as any to admit that I’ve never seen 2001: A Space Odyssey or Apollo 13.
  • I have to commend the directorial decision to have so much silence in the film. A less disciplined director would want to use a lot of music in the film to lend grandeur or to tell the audience how they should feel, but Alfonso Cuaron is confident enough in his visuals to let them stand on their own. This is a wise choice and only improves the film.

The weaknesses of the script don’t completely handicap Gravity; the extra effort from the leads paired with the simply awe-inspiring effects makes this an enjoyable and impressive film. The corny dialogue prevents Gravity from being a truly great film – next time hire a screenwriter instead of letting the director pen the script – but it is so dazzling that you almost don’t notice these limitations (almost). This is a surprisingly stressful movie to watch and I had no idea how the story was going to resolve itself. If this film can win over my cold, black, outer space-hating heart, it is certainly worth seeing. Gravity is one of the most exquisite films that you will see all year.

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