The thing about “Gravity” is, basically, there is none.
Yet Sandra Bullock, with a little help from George Clooney, provides plenty of heft to keep Alfonso Cuaron’s latest offering from floating away.
Sandra Bullock steps into a spacesuit to be Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first trip to space. On the crew’s last spacewalk before returning home, she struggles with installing a new prototype piece of equipment while mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) revels in his last time among the stars before being retired.
Suddenly, Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris) advises the crew that an attempt by Russia to shoot down one of their own satellites has made a debris cloud. The debris cloud itself is no threat to the team, but it has hit other satellites that have subsequently created their own clouds of debris in a destructive chain reaction.
The product of that has formed into a behemoth field of shrapnel that kills one other astronaut out for a space walk and disconnects Stone’s tether, leaving her hurtling through space. Kowalski retrieves her with a jet pack, but when they make it back to the shuttle they find that it is destroyed and the rest of the crew has all been killed — and the debris field is coming back. Their only hope is to make it to the International Space Station, but besides the distance and impending danger, they also have to overcome severed radio communications with Houston and their dwindling air and fuel supplies.
The graphics here are stunning. I guess you could see it in any other format, but it really made good use of 3D and IMAX made every twinkling star that much bigger. Cuaron didn’t skimp on the good stuff, but it’s not just eye candy; for every moment of peril, he shows us a vivid example of the beauty of space. His signature wide shots are perfectly suited to the job, but he utilizes extreme close-ups, too. The camera angles mirror the action on screen, so when Stone is tumbling through space, the camera spins with her — not in such a way that makes you want to puke, but just enough to be inclusive. The views dance, sometimes seamlessly, between broad shots of space, close-ups of the astronauts’ faces and being inside the astronaut’s helmet. All of it works together to suck you in, and it feels just about as close to being in space as you can get without actually going.
With so few faces on screen, the actors each have that much more weight to carry to keep the film afloat, but they do it brilliantly. Robert Downey Jr. was reportedly first cast as Kowalski, but had to drop out, forcing them to get Clooney instead. But he is perfectly in his element here, at once lighthearted but calm and capable when the going gets rough.
Bullock was reportedly not in the first round of picks for the role, and was only cast after talks or auditions with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Carrie Mulligan, Sienna Miller, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Olivia Wilde didn’t work out. But she commands the role in such a way that considering anyone else in it seems absurd.
Female leads in sci-fi movies are scarce, but Bullock’s role, originally written for a man, defies gender. The majority of the film is focused on her, but it doesn’t get old. Her panic, though clearly escalated by her lack of experience in space, doesn’t feel weak, and her transition through despair, hope and determination feels real. Bullock’s performance is about as flawless as I’ve seen this year, and it definitely deserves some loving come award season.
Actually, that could be said for virtually every aspect of the movie. From start to finish, “Gravity” wrangles a range of emotions and makes the most out of “‘Apollo 13’ meets ‘Castaway’ except Tom Cruise turned into Sandra Bullock” to make a stunningly compelling film.