Warning: you might want to avoid this movie if you’re prone to motion sickness. Or panic attacks. Or claustrophobia, agoraphobia, or maybe even just abandonment issues. But if none of those are a problem–and you liked Apollo 13–then this movie is for you.
The film begins with silent, starkly displayed facts about the inhospitality of space, then segues to an ethereal, luminescent view of Earth. A NASA shuttle crew is servicing the Hubble telescope. Medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a rookie astronaut trying to focus on installing new scanning equipment without losing her lunch. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is the garrulous veteran commanding his final mission, cracking wise with Mission Control as he meanders about in his jetpack.
Houston warns of a possible complication: Russia has shot down one of its own satellites, creating high-velocity space debris. Roger that. But as any aficionado of disaster movies will tell you, that casual warning is the harbinger of doom. The debris has destroyed other satellites, creating a chain reaction; a tidal wave of shrapnel is now orbiting toward the crew at rocket speed.
The shuttle is destroyed. Stone is flung into space, tumbling helplessly. Kowalski, the only other crew member to survive, finds Stone and tethers her to him. (Parents: there are brief but disturbingly graphic images of dead crew members, and a few uses of strong language as the characters come to grips with their situation.) With Stone’s oxygen running dangerously low, and communication with Houston cut off, their only hope is to make it to the International Space Station. Suffice it to say that Stone soon finds herself alone, trying to scratch up the motivation to continue fighting against impossible odds.
Gravity is a stunning piece of filmmaking. I don’t care for 3D effects that serve as gee-whiz filler for a weak story. But I saw Gravity in 3D for a reason, and was glad I did: the illusion of depth is an integral part of conveying the desperation of being adrift and alone in space. Yes, there are moments where the special effects draw too much attention to themselves: as Stone cries in desperation, a tear floats toward us in zero-gravity, and her image is captured, Escher-like, in the bobbing droplet.
For the most part, however, the considerable technical artistry serves the story transparently and well by plunging us into Stone’s terrifying ordeal. In a performance that will surely net her another Oscar-nomination, Bullock pulls us onto Stone’s roller coaster of emotions–a remarkable feat, considering that she accomplished much of this while dangling from wires in front of a green screen, with a camera in her face and no other actor to play against.
Director Alfonso Cuaron, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas, seems to nod respectfully to other space classics: Ed Harris (Apollo 13, The Right Stuff) is recruited to provide the voice of Mission Control; a backlit scene of Bullock curled into near-fetal position echoes the closing shot of 2001, suggesting that the character is about to be reborn.
But first and foremost, like Apollo 13 and other movies of its ilk, Gravity is an emotion-filled paean to the indomitability of the human spirit. In one scene, Stone resigns herself to her fate, wondering if anyone will pray for her soul; she would do it herself, but no one has ever taught her how. She is deeply, spiritually alone–and it is the resolution of that isolated emptiness that provides the narrative turning point.
Hollywood has confronted us before with the lonely terror of the void: Gary Lockwood, cast adrift in 2001; John Lithgow’s panicked space walk in 2010; the tagline of Alien–“In space, no one can hear you scream.” Together, Cuaron and Bullock bring new depth to an old theme.
In that vein, Christians who see this movie might take the opportunity to wonder, individually or together: could I sit in Ryan Stone’s chair, contemplating death, and know that I am not alone? And what would it take to have that confidence even in less dire circumstances?
Update (3/2/2014): The Academy has voted. Gravity took home seven Oscars, mostly for technical achievement. Alfonso Cuaron took the top honor as director, but neither Bullock nor the film itself won their categories.