GRAVITY is all force, no weight.
Isaac Newton can at last rest easy in the grave he’s been turning in since STAR WARS brainwashed everyone into thinking it was a space movie even whilst failing to exhibit one iota of any attribute of being in space.
GRAVITY showcases Newton’s laws of gravitation and physics in magnificent ubiquity. It’s as close to the real thing as we’re gonna get without plopping a fishbowl on our heads and careening off the walls in the Vomit Comet.
And that is GRAVITY’s greatest achievement – its execution. (The cinematography is so startlingly authentic that one reporter asked the director what it was like to film in space.) The story is quite simple: two marooned Space Shuttle astronauts in Low Earth Orbit must find a way to get back to Earth. Packed with the requisite ticking clocks smashing up against mounting adversities, and even a healthy dose of hallucination thrown in, writer-director Alfonso Cuaron (CHILDREN OF MEN) couches the tropes we know all too well in an environment we think we know well, but for which our eyes have been suddenly opened in primal terror. And opened in 3D, no less. (GRAVITY is one of the few movies that actually benefits from 3D technology – but I liked wearing those usually-annoying glasses for another reason: it cut off my peripheral vision and made me feel as claustrophobic as the astronauts in their suits floating around about to die.) Space has not been purveyed this intensely or compellingly since Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY.
Astronaut pilot Kowalski (George Clooney, overdosing on charm – I think his oxygen’s turned up too high), and astronaut techie Ryan (Sandra Bullock, her once-girl-next-door face deformed from all the plastic surgery – or was that the 3D glasses making her look that way?) are on a routine Hubble repair mission. This is the first of the film’s numerous mind-blowing tricks: this first sequence is one unbroken take, about 15 minutes long, 14 minutes of it, George Clooney’s velvety charm.
Sudden emergency as orbiting debris from a destroyed satellite decimates the Shuttle and Hubble, and sends Ryan spinning off into space untethered.
Once again, an incredible camera trick as Cuaron subtly takes us from outside the spinning Ryan to inside her helmet, where we experience her uncontrolled spin from within. And on it goes like this: the simple desperate, linear storyline being overshadowed by the technical wizardry of Cuaron and his effects team, who have taken the time, care and intelligence to craft a movie as thrilling as any ignorant Hollywood popcorn-tosser, yet as subliminally educational as any Science Channel feature. GRAVITY shows us what being in space might really be like – and its nothing like talking to a golden butler or whooshing about in an x-wing no better than a Camaro with wings.
So GRAVITY is all thunder thriller, damnable suspense and edge-of-seat nail-biting, it is kinetic and claustrophobic and agoraphobic all at once; it is indeed a game-changer. Yet though it continues the magisterial visual legacy of SPACE ODYSSEY, it contains none of the mysticism or far-reaching cosmic ideas. These astronauts are just looking for a rocket ride home. Hence, movie is all force, no weight; all charm, no substance (kinda like George Clooney– d’oh! I kid The Cloon! Dja notice how in that atmosphere suit, he’s a doppelganger for Buzz Lightyear?!)
As the opening title card tells us, “Life in space is impossible.” We are creatures of atmosphere, and have grown accustomed to our entertainment media portraying “space” as if it too had an atmosphere (not least the unconscionable “sound in space” device, and the irritating “helmet removal” device). But GRAVITY – through its simple adherence to physics laws – rockets us out of our comfort zones to an environment deadlier than any ocean, mountaintop, or session of the U.S. congress.
It is when Kowalski speeds out and catches the spinning Ryan that GRAVITY makes its first big mistake.
Orbital mechanics is an amazing, counter intuitive science. And GRAVITY manages to get all its orbital mechanics totally wrong. Though Ryan spinning out of control is a mind-shattering sequence, Kowalski catching her is an impossibility. Whether she was thrown into a higher or lower orbit is moot, the propellant needed to perform the complex series of inward and outward radial burns to catch her would have fizzled his Manned Maneuvering Unit long before he reached her. Even upon catching her, no shrift is given to the fact that they need to perform another series of complex retrograde and posigrade burns to re-attain the shuttle orbit, all while orbiting themselves. No, they just point to the Shuttle and fly to it because – that old inbuilt prejudice – that’s what you do in an ATMOSPHERE.
Later, Kowalski jokes on how to pilot a space station’s escape pod to safety, “You just point the damned thing at Earth. It’s not rocket science.” Uh, well, actually Kowalski, it IS rocket science, and if you point it at Earth and don’t do anything else, depending on the last burns you performed to point the damned thing at Earth, you could be flying off in a myriad of different directions; you could be increasing your orbit, you could skip off the atmosphere, you could end up in ARMAGEDDON. This cannot even be considered a joke to a fellow astronaut who would have been versed in the basics of orbital mechanics, before being allowed on spacewalks to fix the Hubble. So he’s just saying it for we the audience, to exhibit that head-waggling Clooney charm.
Now don’t get me wrong – this isn’t your excrementitious MISSION TO MARS, RED PLANET or ARMAGEDDON. This is true science fiction in the sincere vein of MOON, APOLLO 13 (where Ed Harris was the voice of Mission Control, as he is here), or even SPACE COWBOYS (sans geriatric jokes). Of course, it’s adrenalized for a generation inured to the likes of the blockbusters, and even though it might be a blockbuster in the fiscal sense, it is not pandering to a blockbuster crowd in the same way.
Blockbuster crowds would be unaware of the myriad (acceptable) mistakes that GRAVITY does make (there’s some kind of correlation between block-busters and block-heads, but it’d take a rocket scientist…); I won’t go through a laundry list – just check imdb goofs and work outwards from there – but the most egregious for me is the helmet glare shields. While on EVA (extra-vehicular activity), ALL ASTRONAUTS KEEP THEIR GLARE SHIELDS DOWN, to shield their eyes from the Sun (which, by the way, should appear white from space, but it looks yellow here). With these two, not only do they never use their glare shields, they keep looking directly into the sun. Enjoy frying your corneas much, trained astronauts?
Most of the gravity-less scenes and scenes conveying unstoppable motion are excellent (note the scene where an astronaut floats tantalizingly close to a satellite but cannot quite desperately grasp any handholds!); and there is the weightless fetal scene where Bullock gets down to her panties, reminiscent of Sigourney Weaver in ALIEN; almost sexist (especially in the way she thrusts out her push-up bra as if it’s all her), ultimately sexual (don’t even try to tell me otherwise!). So forgive my nitpicking, filmmakers, but if you’re going to go 95% with your special effects, we’re gonna call you on the remaining 5%; most viewers have it right when they ask, “Why isn’t her hair weightless and floating as well?”
The best thing about GRAVITY: Remember when we used to watch movies and ask ourselves, “How did they DO that?” Though we know most of GRAVITY is CGI, there are enough practical sequences where we find ourselves marveling like days of olde.
Thank you, Alfonso Cuaron – for teaching me to love again… (I feel like I’m walking on air…)