“I hate space” is probably one of the simplest lines that Sandra Bullock has ever had to speak, but it’s also the truest. If 2001: A Space Odyssey made humanity look to the stars, Gravity makes a strong argument for staying terrestrially bound and never dreaming of going anywhere. The tension and anxiety of Gravity is so pervasive that it flirts with becoming self-parodic, but it’s so effective that at last we have it: a true space disaster movie.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock, The Heat) is a bio-medic at the end of her first space jaunt. When the Hubble Space Telescope is destroyed, she and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney, The Descendants) have to find their way to the International Space Station before speeding debris destroys both it and them.
It doesn’t strictly matter how much of Gravity is special effects rather than physical action, because at no point does it feel like Bullock and Clooney aren’t in space. Non-physicists are only truly asked to suspend belief once, towards, the end, and even that is easy to shrug off. Doctor Stone’s experience is so alien that we have no choice but to go along with it, and it fits perfectly with what the average viewer will know of space; extensive attention to detail and carefully applied 3D effects make the film completely immersive even before the acting is taken into consideration.
A lot of Gravity is presented as an FPS, or First Person Sandra. We sometimes see Stone fumbling through her own eyes, but this is not what makes us identify with her; Stone is one of the more convincing creations of Bullock’s career. Her story is nothing special – nothing beyond what would qualify someone for a space mission, anyway – but Bullock sells both her terrestrial origins and her current scenario with genuine conviction. Clooney is an effective foil, but Gravity is Bullock’s film.
Alfonso Cuarón, working off a script that he wrote with his son Jonas, has made a tense, fraught movie. The number of problems that Stone encounters would seem cruel were it not for the objectively uncaring nature of space. We’re always in the moment, and except for the very beginning, the moment is never a good one to be in.
Gravity is a masterfully constructed space film, but it’s a movie that should be seen sparingly. Stone is so empathetically painted that it’s hard to watch her suffer so much over 91 densely packed minutes of catastrophe. Cuarón has done for stars what Spielberg did for sharks; in space, no one can hear Sandra Bullock scream, but those in the audience can – and we desperately wish that we didn’t have to.
Gravity was released in Australia on October 3rd.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.