DON’T LET GO.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and the most famous person working at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was surprised the other day to learn how media had reported on a series of tweets he’d made where he pointed out scientific mistakes in Gravity. He felt compelled to explain himself. In a Facebook post, he wrote that the film may have gotten ten things wrong, but a hundred things right. “To ‘earn’ the right to be criticized on a scientific level is a high compliment indeed”, he added. In other words, Alfonso Cuarón’s greatest film so far is not only a thrill ride, but a largely scientifically correct experience as well.
A first-timer on the crew
On his last mission in space, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) has a first-timer on his crew, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who’s a Mission Specialist. Their maintenance work on the Hubble Telescope is abruptly interrupted when a Russian missile strike on an old satellite causes a chain reaction that hurls debris into low Earth orbit, traveling as fast as a bullet. In its path lie both Hubble and the shuttle.
Less than a minute after Houston’s order to abort, debris come flying, hitting the shuttle, and Ryan is detached. As she’s tumbling through space, farther away from Earth, she loses contact with Houston and her oxygen level becomes critical…
Based on real concepts
More of the story should not be revealed, and I made sure not to know more before I went into the theater. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would this be another 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), which is one of my favorite movies of all time? Gravity is more down-to-earth, though. Even that chain reaction is based on a real concept, the Kessler Syndrome, a catastrophic scenario that would render the use of satellites impossible. The consequences for mankind would be severe, but in this film they are limited to the crew of the shuttle, and Dr. Stone in particular whose mission to survive becomes Herculean.
This wouldn’t be the kind of white-knuckle thriller it is without its characters. The writers don’t provide much time for us to get to know Stone and Kowalski, but we do learn a little (especially about a tragic incident in Stone’s past that makes us understand her emotions and spiritual hopes better)… and it does help that they’re played by such likable and reliable stars as Bullock and Clooney. The former in particular delivers one of the best performances of her career; it took a lot of time for her to prepare, and it shows, both mentally and physically. There are no lulls here whatsoever; visually, this is a stunning experience, especially in 3D, with special effects that are in turns horrifying and beautiful. The sight of Earth from low orbit is remarkably rendered, complete with phenomena like hurricanes and northern lights that look even more fascinating from high above.
But it’s also likely the first movie to really capture the nauseating feeling of being in space, what it must be like to have no gravity, especially when you lose control in a crisis. Kudos to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for that achievement. True to its scientific ambitions, there’s no noise when the debris destroys the shuttle, but Steven Price’s dramatic score makes the sound of an explosion obsolete.
Ed Harris provides the voice of Mission Control, and it’s a nod to another key Hollywood portrayal of space exploration, Apollo 13 (1995). If some people who provided feedback at an early stage had had it their way, Gravity would have been much more Hollywood; there was even an idea of Stone being in a relationship with the Mission Control Commander. Thank God, the Cuarón brothers stayed true to their vision.
Gravity 2013-U.S. 91 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Alfonso Cuarón, David Heyman. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Screenplay: Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón. Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki. Editing: Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger. Music: Steven Price. Cast: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski). Voice of Ed Harris.
Trivia: The voice of Aningaaq is a reference to a short film directed by Jonás Cuarón, where the character first appeared. Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey, Jr. were reportedly considered for the lead roles.
Oscars: Best Director, Cinematography, Editing, Original Score, Visual Effects, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing. Golden Globe: Best Director. BAFTA: Best British Film, Director, Cinematography, Original Music, Special Visual Effects, Sound.
Last word: “There were different technologies that were involved that we created. What they all have in common is that they had to be pre-programmed. So when we went to the shooting stage, everything was set in stone, meaning that we could not do adjustments, and meaning that the actors, there was very little room for actors to do changes, because the scene had to be exactly that length of time — the timing was written in stone. The positions were written in stone. It was like, ‘At that exact moment, [Sandra], you reach out with your hand like that’. Everything was so millimetric. It was a testament to Sandra and George how they went through with all these technical, psychological limitations around them, how they make it seem effortless. Everything was very uncomfortable for the actors.” (Alfonso Cuarón, Vulture)