While we eavesdropped on the cast’s interplay during their distant grand entrance, the ambiance of their stage-setting was slightly disrupted by the sounds of the peckish viewers seated around me, rustling plastic wrappers and scarfing whatever snacks they couldn’t be bothered to finish during the preceding 25-minute trailer marathon. This sort of aural dissonance isn’t an issue when you’re watching the average summer action blockbuster that kicks off with a twenty-minute 200-decibel set piece that eradicates all sound and vibration in its path.
That patiently measured fade-in is your first clue that director Alfonso Cuaron isn’t aiming for Fast and Furious in Space. Anyone who saw the destruction and whirligig pandemonium in the trailers and came in hoping for spaceship chases and lasers a-blastin’ is bound to leave the theater frustrated. Whereas space in most films is little more than a black backdrop obscured by the excitement happening in front of it, Cuaron and his resourceful crew approach those same depths — and the rules of physics that govern them — with a scientist’s eye and a poet’s soul.
At a taut ninety minutes, Gravity spares no time for subplots or supporting characters, instead keeping a narrow, sharp-eyed focus on just the two core personalities. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a rookie researcher who’s undergone the necessary training for her assignment but doesn’t have instant recall of every lesson; Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is the seasoned pro astronaut who doubtlessly has multiple missions to his credit, not just simulations. Hints of other humans peek in around the edges, but they’re in service to our focal duo, both with the seasoning and skills to command a two-character piece on their own with minimal outside distractions. (Beyond random strangers on the radio, the only other noticeable dramatis personae are Ed Harris in an audio-only reprise of his Apollo 13 role as Houston mission control, and the rest of the Shuttle crew, each played largely by props as props.)
All is well within their convivial, unconventional workplace until the unexpected destruction of another satellite near their orbit scatters chunks of burning metal in frictionless straight paths in all directions. From there, the fight for survival begins amid an arresting cavalcade of wreckage savagely begetting wreckage, heart-stopping collisions upon collisions curiously bereft of the subwoofer impacts we expect, heightened instead by the score (courtesy of composer Steven Price, last heard on The World’s End) that opts for an old-fashioned but vibrant grandeur. It’s a technique for space action that worked well on TV’s Firefly (and Serenity) that suits Gravity well.
I was initially worried that the film would be ninety minutes of Sandra Bullock cartwheeling to Pluto, but this is thankfully one of those rare occasions in which most of the trailer clips were pulled from the first act alone. I’m reluctant to say too much about Bullock’s physical journey, one fraught with the predictable but nonetheless imposing threats of oxygen depletion, inertia control, forgotten procedures, uncooperative equipment, and the specter of even more out-of-control debris. Surprisingly, all of these jaw-dropping stimuli rushes headlong at us with a firm basis in reality. There are no sinister aliens responsible, no Star Trek inventions in their tool kits, no extrapolation of NASA breakthroughs yet to come, no actual “science fiction” in the sense of inventing the impossible for our enjoyment. If anything, considering their lamentable decommissioning in 2011, the presence of a Space Shuttle alone technically marks this as a period piece.
The astounding effects also serve an even greater, underlying theme that steps to the forefront when a distraught Bullock, engaged by Clooney as a distraction from the crises surrounding them, reveals the tragedy that drove her to where she is, that effectively severed her link to humanity in general and sent her reeling into a meaningless emptiness. On the visual level, the bulk of her immediate challenges involve necessary attempts to grab onto passing fixtures, cling tightly to any viable handholds, and taking tremendous leaps of faith across yawning chasms from one solid base to the next. Through her interactions with Clooney — and, at some junctures, with herself — Bullock shows us how crippled she is by emotional disconnection from the world around her. Her continued existence, in this moment and in the future if she lives through Shuttle tragedy, will depend on knowing when to hang on tight and when to let go.
In one of the most elegant scenes interspersed throughout the harrowing gauntlet, Bullock is rewarded with a temporary time-out, safe from harm long enough to soak in surplus oxygen, free herself from her cumbersome astronaut’s armor, go limp, shut her eyes, and just float in place for a while. Even if this moment too shall pass, she’s secure in the freedom to do so within that moment only because of the connections that made that sanctuary possible.
The ultimate moral(s), then: the universe is too vast for us to go it alone. If you never hold onto anything, you’re liable to spiral out of control into the void. And sometimes even holding onto one large thing isn’t enough, if the thing you’re holding onto has no solid mooring of its own. Without the right lifelines, life in space ultimately is impossible, even if your feet are planted on terra firma.
To answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: no, there’s no scene after the Gravity end credits, just a long list of visual effects houses — at least a few of whose supervisors should see their names pop up in next year’s award nomination lists — and a pair of special thanks to fellow directors Guillermo Del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Cuaron’s longtime compadres and lifelines in their own way.