As “Alien” famously reminded us, “In space no one can hear you scream,” but they didn’t mention anything about heavy breathing. “Gravity,” a new space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts adrift in the wild blue yonder, features more heavy breathing than a Linda Lovelace movie.
Beginning with an uninterrupted fifteen-minute opening shot, director Alfonso Cuarón presents a spacy story about medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). She’s an uptight novice; he’s a wisecracking vet on his final mission.
It’s routine stuff—or as routine as space travel ever gets—until a debris storm, comprised of bits and pieces of old satellites, chunks of metal traveling as fast as bullets, crashes into their space shuttle. Stone is knocked “off structure” and drifting through the inky darkness while Kowalsky uses his experience and calm to rescue her. Cue the heavy breathing as her oxygen slowly runs out and panic sets in.
The storm has knocked their communications offline and they are forced to become Space MacGyvers in order to survive.
“Gravity” is an ambitious film. A two-hander set against the bleak backdrop of space, it relies on the cast and some tricky camerawork to maintain interest over the film’s deliberately paced but slight 85 minute running time.
The story is one of survival, but screenwriter Cuarón (who co-wrote it with his son Jonás) hasn’t simply written a horror film about imminent disaster. Stone signed up for outer space travel to isolate herself from a personal tragedy, but when the chips are down she finds new meaning in her life.
It’s a good way to ground the story. The isolation of space is well portrayed, the “off structure” sequences are tense and effective and the shots of Bullock drifting in the void or floating through her space shuttle are beautiful, like interstellar ballet. As effective as the human story is in Gravity, however, I could almost imagine turning the sound down and being content to just watch the pictures. Like Laser Floyd in Space.
But “Gravity,” while beautiful to look at, is occasionally too in love with its technique. The seventeen minute long uninterrupted shot that starts the film is spectacular and overall the look will make your eyeballs dance but then there’s a scene where we see Sandra Bullock reflected in one of her own, gravity free, tears. It’s a great image but one that feels a bit too clever. It was one of the few times in the film that I thought I was watching a special effect.
The look is an achievement, but when you find yourself daydreaming about how a scene was shot, it’s a sure sign the technique has taken you outside the story.
“Gravity” isn’t an epic like “2001: A Space Odyssey” or an outright horror film like “Alien.” There are no monsters or face hugging ETs. It’s not even a movie about life or death. Instead it is a life-affirming movie about the will to survive.