Gravity (2013 Film)

A friend had warned me beforehand that the storyline of the extremely highly-rated Gravity was very simple; I can’t say this affected me one way or the other, as the amazing visuals and (mostly) Newtonian physics – seldom present in sci-fi films – hooked me.

Bullock and Clooney play astronauts repairing the Hubble Space Telescope when an unexpected debris wave wrecks their mission, destroys their shuttle, and cuts off communications from Ground Control. From then on, anything that can go wrong goes wrong, and the astronauts struggle to survive with limited oxygen, fuel, and options to get home.

I saw the movie in 3D IMAX, which is the way to enjoy this film: every panorama of vast, lonely, empty space and the gigantic luminous Earth looks spectacular and haunting, and the amazing visuals by themselves are worth the price of the ticket.

Spacewalk equipment, control panels and buttons are lovingly recreated from the real thing. While Astronauts and scientist have gently noted where Hollywood physics takes over from reality – notably the difficulty of changing orbit (lots of planning and fuel are required to move between the locations in the film), and one desperate moment partway through the film, Gravity is perhaps the most accurate, widespread portrayal of space – the environment is unforgivingly brutal, and humans so fragile. The lack of sound during manic destruction emphasises the foreignness of the setting. Characters spin and bounce round uncontrollably, desperately trying to get their bearings, move where they need to, and not overshoot. I was reminded of a space documentary many years back that brought home to me how insignificant humanity is – gigantic moons, completely barren, storms that dwarf the entire Earth, and unimaginable distances beyond the scale of human life. Tears, fire, lethal shrapnel, structures disintegrating – in zero gravity these action-movie tropes look foreign and fresh.

Despite the action, Gravity is a contemplative movie – Bullock’s character has suffered loss in her life, and her physical isolation mirrors her emotional isolation. The Earth looms beautiful but unreachable throughout the movie; compared to that, what is a single life or death? At one point she floats curling into the foetal position: Gravity is about more than an accident in space.

While the plot is straightforward, because the themes of the movie operate at a higher level there’s palpable tension over whether anyone will survive – there’s also a great twist towards the end of the movie that reminds me of other works dealing with survival after a catastrophe. I liked Bullock since I saw her everywoman character in Speed, and it’s nice to see her in such an amazing movie.

Gravity works on many levels: it’s a personal survival story about life and loss, it’s a spectacular action flick that reimagines familiar tropes, and it’s the clearest visualisation of hard-science space activity that I’ve seen. I recommend this movie wholeheartedly.

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