Praising a film for its special effects is dubious, it’s almost like standing in front of a painting and saying, “Wow, what a great frame!” Special effects, as advanced and amazing as they can be, are filigree when it comes to film–the story is what matters. Gravity, directed by Alfonso Cuaron, has terrific special effects, and, fortunately, also a pretty good story, one that is old as the written word itself–survival.
The tale unfolds in space, where we are told in a title card that life is impossible. A team of astronauts is repairing the Hubble space telescope, but why a medical doctor (Sandra Bullock) is doing it is inadequately explained. The mission commander (George Clooney, looking like Buzz Lightyear) is frolicking with a jet pack, hoping to break the record for longest space walk. But then a warning from Houston: a Russian satellite has exploded, and the debris is heading their way.
Bullock and Clooney will be the only survivors, and for a few moments Bullock is flipping through space, unattached to anything, which must be just about the worst terror imaginable. Clooney tracks her down, and they make their way to the Soyuz, hoping to find a way back to Earth. (Who knew space was so crowded with vehicles that can get you home?)
What makes Gravity effective is the sharing of the sense of dread at being marooned in space. The effects are so good that I didn’t even spend any time thinking, “How’d they do that?” but instead just suspended disbelief–the reptilian part of my brain just assumed I was watching people float in space. Shots from Bullock’s point of view, through her visor, the sun reflecting through it and her vital signs displayed on the periphery, were very effective, especially in 3D (yes, I forked over the extra five bucks to watch in IMAX 3D, the first time I’ve done so, but Gravity may need to be seen in 3D to get the full effect). Then, then the scenes of her floating around inside Soyuz in her underwear were wonderful, for more than just one reason.
Still, Gravity is not the best film of the year, or will even make my top ten. It has lots of cliches, such as the tapping of an gauge to reveal that it’s really on zero, or giving Bullock a dead child to mourn. Many have noted that Bullock says the thing she likes about space most is the silence, but the soundtrack is a cacophony, with egregious harm done by Steven Price’s score. A more daring choice would have been to have no score at all, and let us understand what a vacuum really sounds like.
But the film moves briskly–it’s only 90 minutes, a wink in time compared to most Hollywood prestige pictures, and the tension is palpable. Bullock fully commands the screen, as she is alone for a good chunk of the picture. Clooney plays his usual self, a charming rogue, the kind of thing he could do in his sleep.
As for scientific accuracy, Neil deGrasse Tyson plays the role of buzzkill. He did enjoy the movie, though.
My grade for Gravity: B+