CAPSULE: In a spacesuit you can't bite your fingernails. On a mission to repair the Hubble telescope things go very wrong and two astronauts are set adrift in space. They have to engineer their own rescue against huge odds. This is a film of solid tension and suspense set against the exquisite background of orbital space. The film is visually beautiful and the science for the most part seems on the money right down to how the spacesuits move in a weightless environment. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star and the film is directed by Alfonso Cuaron of CHILDREN OF MEN. Rating: high +2 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
Back when I read science fiction as a teen I generally liked stories that had a high level of credibility. Those stories had authors like Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein who used to be accurate to the science of the day. Writers like Arthur C. Clarke usually would base a good story around scientific principles. He would write a novel like A FALL OF MOONDUST, in which a lunar surface vehicle would fall into an ocean of dust and would have to be rescued obeying the physical laws of a very not earthlike and hostile environment. This is a very different breed of science fiction from the sort we see in action films like this year's OBLIVION or ELYSIUM.
GRAVITY is a film that realistically looks at a problem that happens in orbit around the Earth and must be solved with scientific and engineering genius rather than with guns. But we get few science fiction films of that sort. In fact, while APOLLO 13 was technically a history film and GRAVITY is science fiction, they are very close in spirit. The conditions of space create the problem and it has to be solved using knowledge of science and engineering and one heck of a lot of creative thinking. Let me give you this straight. When you have to face this sort of problem failure darn well *is* an option, even if it is a tragic one. In fact it can be darn near inevitability. And that is what gives the story its suspense.
Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are space walking outside the space shuttle trying to repair the Hubble Telescope. Stone is still wet behind the ears and is all business. Kowalski has more homespun, slightly off- color jokes than did Spielberg's Abraham Lincoln. He jokes with Stone and he jokes with Mission Control (played not too surprisingly by Ed Harris). Then it all goes wrong. Nearly everything that Stone and Kowalsky need to survive is blown away. They have to depend heavily on each other if they are ever going to get back to Earth. The film is short, 91 minutes, and there is not a lot of plotting to it. We get just a rudimentary back story for the two major characters. For them what is important is what is happening here and now. Then the rest of the film is just an extrapolation from the set-up as to what the characters might do to save their lives.
The cause of the problem seems very unlikely and very dependent on coincidence (though I am not enough of an expert to say for sure). What seems even more improbable is a set of coincidences in the last ten minutes of the film. And more unlikely still is that when large objects collide in this film we hear them on the soundtrack, in spite of the fact we are in a vacuum. When large bodies collide I am sure I heard a bump sound. The claim has been made that is only true in the trailer, but I am sure I heard it happening in the actual movie.
There are only seven characters in the entire cast and four of them are only voices. One is CGI with an actor's voice. This is a film about the wonder and terror of orbital space flight above the planet. Stone is a medical engineer in space for the first time who has little confidence and has to be taught by Kowalski to handle herself in an emergency. Pilot Kowalski who has been flying space missions for decades is a blunt instrument with course jokes who considers himself just a fancy truck driver, but he gives the kind of kind support you would want from someone who was lost with you in space.
Alfonso Cuaron coauthored the script with his son Jonas Cuaron. They gave us a human story far from any other humans. It is genuine science fiction of the purest kind. I rate GRAVITY a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
I am going to be nit-picky. One inaccuracy is that it is impossible to place the setting of this story in time. There is no Chinese space station in 2013 so it takes place some years in the future, but also there will be no more space shuttles in space. NASA probably is moving on to using the Space Launch System (SLS). Undoubtedly it could have been used in this film rather than the Space Shuttle, but SLS has as yet little audience recognition value.
Wikipedia on the Space Launch System: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_Launch_System
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1454468/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gravity_2013/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper