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Alfonso Cuarón singlehandedly revived the serious science fiction film with his 2006 tale of a frightening future, Children of Men. Although it has no fantastic content, Cuarón's 2013 Gravity is still science fiction for the simple fact that it presents events in space that haven't yet occurred -- but quite easily could. Presented in 3-D and consisting of an almost unbroken 91-minute special effect, the show's visuals are so sophisticated that for the most of the running time we're never aware that we're watching computer animation, with human faces and bodies pasted into the picture here and there. That's not meant to be a slam -- Gravity is better than photo-real, it's a visually convincing construction guided by intelligence and good taste. 2001: A Space Odyssey will never lose its place as an awesome, original look at the mystery of space, but Gravity benefits from the unlimited plasticity of computer enhanced moviemaking. Unlike Kubrick's future, this show takes place in the here and now, with mostly familiar space hardware -- shuttlecraft, International and National space stations, escape pods.
Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón's screenplay appears to play out in real time. Working in orbit are astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Shariff (voice: Phaldut Sharma). Shariff's repairs are completed but scientist Ryan is having trouble with some electronics when Mission Control tells them to abort the mission immediately. The planned destruction of a Soviet satellite has started a chain reaction, knocking out a large number of satellites and turning them into space shrapnel shooting at 1700 mph. Inexperienced as an astronaut, Ryan has difficulty following Matt's instructions and is still tethered to a boom when a wave of debris hits, shredding their spaceship to bits. She's hurled into space and left helpless until Matt retrieves her in his EVA rocket pack. Their comrades killed, the two head off in the direction of a larger space station, just in sight on the horizon. With so many satellites destroyed, there is no communication with Earth. As the station astronauts have likely abandoned ship, they can only hope they'll find a functioning escape pod. Technically, they haven't enough fuel to reach the station and must hope that they can just snag it as they fall by. Worse, the cloud of space shrapnel is still orbiting too -- in 90 minutes it will circle the earth and hit them again.
I was fortunate to see Gravity before knowing too much about it. Director Cuarón uses his first ten minutes or so to convince us that he has every possible technical base covered. We see the Earth, and then the approach of our orbiting shuttle and the astronauts doing EVA work. Clooney's Matt Kowalski does lazy circles around the ship in his rocket pack, enjoying his final trip into space and pestering Mission Control with his stories. Shariff finishes his work and amuses himself doing somersaults and laughing. Only Bullock's Ryan is having a tough time, with some electronic panel that refuses to send data back to Earth. First comes a precautionary bulletin and then suddenly the order to get under cover. But what looks like a field of glittering diamonds closes on them almost immediately, and all hell breaks loose. Up until this point the movie is one single unbroken shot, with the camera slowly twisting and turning to catch the action and observe Ryan and Matt behind their helmet faceplates. To satisfy 3-D addicts, Ryan drops a bolt, which drifts out over the audience before Matt snags it with a fat-gloved hand.
The rest of the movie is the first person, (almost) real-time ordeal of Ryan Stone, a scientist who freely admits that she's not at all ready to deal with this disaster. She's had only six months of training, and although it's not stated directly we get the idea that the highly experienced Matt is there to guide her over the rough spots. My perception is that we expect spacemen to be able to take extreme physical punishment, be spun like a top yet retain equilibrium, etc.. As can be easily understood, Ryan doesn't do very well under the psychic panic of imminent death in space. We wonder, "who okayed this person to fly?" when Ryan is too shell-shocked to grab onto things, figure anything out for herself or calm herself down. Perhaps space crews are now composed of two parts: flight command people who can perform each other's functions as well as repair most anything on the ship; and 'specialists' given a good basic training but not expected to be self-sufficient.
Ryan is definitely in the latter category. By the time she's functioning halfway well, she still hasn't overcome her butterfinger problem (at one point making this viewer say, "Oh, come on!" out loud) or nailed her thinking down to identifying immediate priorities. Other moments are frustrating only because of our false expectation that nobody in a space suit is going to make a dumb mistake -- like turning on a pressurized fire extinguisher in Zero G without first bracing one's self. If I'm going to be honest, that's probably exactly what I'd do -- twice maybe. We just so badly want Ryan Stone to get a handle on her situation. She finds an escape pod ready to go except that it's snarled in its own prematurely deployed parachute. Now what's the first thing she needs to do?
True, I did wonder why Matt and Ryan didn't try to replenish their oxygen supplies, or perhaps see if a second full rocket pack were intact in the wreckage of their first ship. But I'll take the fact that Matt isn't looking to mean that those were not viable options. And it's true, when Ryan becomes desperate enough she does start getting smart, like a bona fide heroic space cadet. She uses a pressurized extinguisher to ditch one ship and maneuver her way to a second, almost as if she were jumping out of a speeding car. 1 Faced with an escape pod computer written in Chinese, she follows Matt's "what the hell" instructions, which amount to something like, "oh, it's just like the Russian one so just go for it."
The only events in the film that seem overstated to me happen whenever someone opens a pressurized hatch, and it instantly swings open 90 degrees, with Matt or Ryan hanging on to a handle. If not bashed unconscious, I'd think that somebody's arm would be dislocated. It looks rough to me.
Thankfully, the desperate Ryan is never asked to "Use The Force" to solve her problems --- Star Wars is fun but its load of psuedo-philosophical boosh-wah is a rot on the mind. Gravity instead gives us the spectacle of one terrified woman, somewhat depressed in her personal life, finding her strength without an external faith system. In a highly successful departure from the film's realistic surface (not to be divulged here), Ryan is inspired by another personality to relax, get cozy with her survival problem and allow a practical solution to present itself. The narrative detour is beautiful, unpretentious and moving. I can't decide if Ms. Bullock's acting is doing the heavy lifting or if it's all in the writing. Ryan spends most of her ordeal in a highly vulnerable state, doing her best just to hold off an attack of hysteria. And we're in a constant state of suspense.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray + DVD + Ultraviolet of Gravity is a sparkling presentation. A pricier 3-D version is available but the impact and beauty of the film are in no way impaired by the flat presentation. There's very little to say beyond stating that the visuals and sound are exemplary.
Warners has included a full course of extras rather than waiting for a special edition double dip. A series of nine fat making-of Mission Control featurettes cover everything about the development and production of the movie, which had to be completely pre-visualized, like an animated feature. We're shocked to find out what parts of what we see were constructed and what were not; the producers achieved their convincing Zero-G effects by means that must have been exhausting for the actors. Purists should appreciate the rationale applied to what is heard and what is not heard in the silent vacuum of space -- if a character would perceive a vibration due to some impact or noise, then we hear it -- altered by transmission through metal or plastic.
Five shots are given a detailed Shot Breakdown, showing the development through various stages through to the final effect. Aningaaq is a short film by Jon´s Cuarón showing the other half of Ryan Stone's one successful radio contact with another human being -- who turns out to be a fisherman in Greenland.
The most illuminating -- and alarming -- extra is Collision Point: The Race to Clean Up Space. The Blu-ray for Alfonso Cuarón's previous Children of Men contains a similar serious advocacy documentary about the pending convergence of social and political forces that could bring civilization to a halt. It was sort of a thinking person's worst-case scenario, that seems the only logical scenario. This disc's Collision Point indicates that one of the motives behind Gravity unstated in any advertising or promotion so far is the very real possibility that a random collision in space orbits densely overcrowded with non-functioning space junk satellites could create a situation identical to that in the movie. Earth could find itself surrounded by a belt of unpredictable shrapnel that could halt space activity for perhaps a hundred years or more. Communication satellites, television distribution, and cell phone transmission would be the first to go, knocking us back to the, 'use the land cable or radio' limitations of the pre- TelStar 1950s. Although plans exist to safely get rid of dead space satellites, nobody is volunteering to pay. America no longer has a manned orbital space capability, while the space programs of more and more emerging countries are adding to the volume of space junk.
In this sense Gravity is a call to get our space program going again -- to keep America from accidentally losing what technological edge it still enjoys.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Gravity Blu-ray rates:
1. I won't bore readers with parallels between classic science fiction movies and the new Gravity. However, it's amusing that the hail of deadly space shrapnel ("twice as fast as a bullet!") is quite a shock after seeing a dozen space epics in which spaceships easily weathered meteor showers. They mostly bounced off harmlessly, behaving as we would expect meteorites that look like tinfoil and popcorn. One exception is 1955's Conquest of Space. In that film a micrometeorite hit is more realistic, killing a spaceman like a bullet.
On the other hand, in the very first color '50s space epic Destination Moon an un-tethered astronaut is rescued by a fellow spaceman, who improvises with the jet of a pressurized air bottle, just as does Ryan Stone in Gravity.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.