Lost in space

At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise. Not at all a science fiction film in the conventional sense, Alfonso Cuaron’s first feature in seven years has no aliens, space ship battles or dystopian societies, just the intimate spectacle of a man and a woman trying to cope in the most hostile possible environment across a very tight 90 minutes.

“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” George Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky half-jokes at the outset from his perch in orbit around Earth, which looms massively beneath. It’s a sentiment few viewers will agree with once their jaws begin dropping at Cuaron’s astonishing 13-minute opening shot, which gyrates and swoops and loops and turns in concert with the movements of the space shuttle and those of Matt, who jets around untethered while mission scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to fix a technical problem outside the ship. It’s as if Max Ophuls were let loose in outer space, so elegant is the visual continuity, making for a film that will have buffs and casual fans alike gaping and wondering, “How did they do that?” and returning for multiple viewings just to imbibe the sheer virtuosity of it all.

The story, written by Cuaron and his son Jonas, is very simple and straightforward: How will the two surviving team members of a crippled American space shuttle contrive to get back to Earth before their oxygen runs out? Old-timer Kowalsky, who flew his first mission in 1996, takes a self-deprecating attitude with space rookie Stone—“You’re the genius up here; I only drive the bus.”—but his smart-alecky kidding scarcely conceals his serious professionalism and vast knowledge of the ins and outs of staying alive in the frigid void.

Before Cuaron even resorts to his first cut, the peril jacks way up with word of approaching space debris, the result of a chain reaction from the Russians having shot down one of their own satellites. Suddenly and shockingly, the empty space is filled with a metallic torrent from which only dumb luck can save the exposed space travelers. In this terrifying interlude, the ship is damaged and Stone, her umbilical cord severed, tumbles toward oblivion.

Here, as elsewhere in the film, Cuaron coils the tension and visceral impact of key scenes via a startling mix of the objective and subjective, and the extreme contrast between the stillness of empty space and the abrupt arrival of terrible threats. This is achieved by switching from the eerie electronic heaves of Steven Price’s insidiously effective score to total silence; from violent physical action to tight shots of Stone’s face, her breath visible on the inside of her mask and her nervous inhaling and exhaling the only sounds to be heard; from the beauty of a green, blue and tan planet on one side and the depths of infinite darkness on the other; from the awe of the cosmic to the terror of nothingness, from the warmth of the sun to the coldness of eternal limbo.

These oppositions provide the sensory frame for a narrative that, soon after Kowalsky rescues Stone from her trajectory into deep space, shoots off in an unexpected direction. Urgently looking for a safe haven, Kowalsky spots a Russian space station in the distance that might sustain them until a rescue ship can be sent up. Their oxygen supply is running low and Stone isn’t convinced they can make it. Surprises await on the Russian craft and yet again on another space vessel, and when a weightless Stone goes floating about in nothing but her underwear, it’s impossible not to think of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien.

But no monsters pop out baring scary teeth, only adverse circumstances of such extremity that they place Gravity alongside Life of Pi and J.C. Chandor’s upcoming All Is Lost as a survival tale requiring a heroically concentrated form of human resilience. Those two films involve the peril of oceans rather than space, but then Gravity, with its characters all suited up and their heads enclosed in helmets, sometimes almost seems like it’s taking place under water—except that you can see more clearly.

And seeing is what it’s mostly about here, seeing space as if the film was actually shot there. It’s a wonderful cinematic jolt to watch this film for the first time, as it looks as if it had been filmed, as it were, on location. Given the brief running time, it will be tempting for many to return for second and third visits just to take it all in again, to absorb all Cuaron has done.

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