‘Gravity’: White knuckles all the way

October 1, 2013


Not since “127 Hours” have I run into a movie that provoked that mixture of excitement and trepidation in people I know who have seen the trailer as “Gravity.”

The excitement is understandable. The trailers make it look like exactly what it is, which is a harrowing, white-knuckle tale from start to finish.

And the trepidation? Mostly it has to do with acrophobia (because, believe me, that fear of heights is absolutely justified) or concern that it will have a bleak ending (no spoilers here).

I’ve often stated the opinion that animation is the purest kind of movie-making, because it is literally made by hand, image by image, in every practical sense. In that sense, “Gravity” may be the purest piece of filmmaking this year.

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron and his cowriter (and son) Jonas have imagined a world that cannot be filmed – then created it from scratch. While there are a couple of sets, much of the film is set in the unfathomably vast reaches of Earth’s orbit. At some point as you’re watching the characters float around – which is a large chunk of the film – it will probably occur to you that, no, they could not have shot this on location.

Yet it feels as though they did. Indeed, part of me wants to know how they did it – obviously, suspended from wires against a green screen in a studio somewhere – but part of me doesn’t want to know. The film is so engulfing, so enveloping, that you just want to surrender to it and let it sweep you up.

Which it does in pretty short order. George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play a pair of astronauts who have come up to orbit Earth with the space shuttle – well, he’s an astronaut, she’s a scientist who’s been through training for this flight. They’re doing a space-walk outside the shuttle to do repairs on the Hubble telescope and almost ready to head back to Earth.

Then they get an alert from Houston: Get back to the shuttle – now. A missile has destroyed an orbiting satellite, and the debris from that massive piece of technology has, in turn, destroyed several other satellites in its orbit. That entire (and massive) debris field is heading toward them at roughly 17,000 miles per hour.


Before they can do anything, it’s on them, destroying the shuttle and killing everyone else. It’s just the two of them and their only hope is to get to the International Space Station. They’ve got 90 minutes until the debris makes a full orbit and hits them again.

A couple of small problems: She’s running low on oxygen – and he’s almost out of gas for the small booster rockets on the solo rocket-pack that has been propelling him. Will they make it?

That’s just the first of what seems to be a cascading set of crises for this pair, lost in space. Cuaron never lets you forget that, just because the Earth looms huge in the background, they are still floating in a freezing, airless vacuum hundreds of miles above its surface.

That’s the feeling that Cuaron imparts so amazingly: that sensation of floating helplessly, almost uncontrollably. As I watched the film (yes, it’s in 3D and you should see it on as large a screen as you can), it made me think of that weightless sensation that you get while scuba diving, with one crucial difference: Underwater, you can swim because you can use the resistance of flesh against water.

In space, however, there is no air – nothing to push against. Plus, in orbit, though these characters seem to be floating, in fact they’re hurtling – again with no way to control themselves.

I’ve heard some critics who admire the film dismiss it as too simple – two people in a movie-long struggle to save their own lives. Yet this is a movie that sucks the viewer in almost immediately and puts them in the space suits with Bullock and Clooney (well, actually, mostly with Bullock). Life or death: How much more of a story do you need?

These characters become the vehicle for the viewer’s imagination in the best way: What would I do? How would I feel? That kind of connection is what films are about, at their most basic level: If I were in that situation, how would I handle it? Could I?

This film had me holding my breath practically from start to finish, building to a nearly perfect ending. “Gravity” is the most compelling film I’ve seen this year. See it – because it will stay with you for a long time.

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