Gravity directed and written by Alfonso Cuarón, is one of the most intense motion pictures that I have ever seen. The overwhelming engineering that went into creating this technologically stunning work echoes and enhances the thing that it has set out to emulate; the intricate and ultimately fragile Erector sets that man has placed into the heavens.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play American astronauts on a mission to upgrade the Hubble (it should be said that this movie exists in a world were NASA has not been neutered and the shuttle still flies) where due to a Russian anti-satellite test a cascade of space debris threatens to destroy them utterly. Due to quick thinking and the fluidity present in Clooney’s grizzled veteran astronaut, the two of them survive while the shuttle is destroyed.
The movie uses it special effects in a way that visually emphasizes the awesome scope and magnitude of the Earth and hits you full force in the stomach with a bowel-clenching fear of falling AWAY from the planet. There is a moment when Bullock’s character is spinning end over end away from the damaged shuttle where below her the Earth is in darkness and hiding the sun. All that is visible are her helmet lights and the long ribbon of the Milky Way, she is at that point utterly alone; seven billion people on the sleeping globe behind her and untold trillions of stars beyond. She manages to pull herself together and with Clooney, they make their way to the International Space Station and hope.
The movie goes to great lengths to remain faithful to basic space science: there is no sound in space except for the radios of the astronauts or the vibrations that pass through their suits during their attempt to make it safety. The music in the movie serves to punctuate moments of terror and sometimes disappears altogether in order for the visuals to speak for themselves. The accurate reproduction of the vast scale of the ISS is beyond impressive, as is the total destruction of it later on. The mix of CGI and wirework used to emulate zero-g is seamless and Sandra Bullock (who I am typically not a fan of) shines in this role.
Of course, there are minor issues with how events unfold. The ISS is not in the same orbital plane as the Hubble telescope, nor would the Chinese Tiangong station be visible from the ISS. A cascade of space wreckage and debris would eventually damage most of the LEO satellites, but telecommunications birds are much higher up in Clarke (or geosynchronous) orbit. The tension on making contact with the ground would not be as serious as displayed in the film. The sheer physical and emotional energy displayed by Bullock’s character is the one factor that really impresses me, she almost gives up multiple times and yet manages to achieve the impossible.
The last act of the film deviates from the preceding 2/3rds by moving the action into an enclosed space where visions and self-determination are made, allowing the audience a view into the survivor’s thought process and allowing the seemingly inevitable conclusion to unfold. Until it doesn’t. She manages to figure out a solution to a complicated rendezvous and using luck and a fire extinguisher, boards the Chinese Tiangong whilst it is in the middle of a de-orbit maneuver. The moments leading up to the boarding are so white knuckle that I still have not caught my breath!
The film ends on two distinct notes. The triumph of human ingenuity over certain death and the fact that technology itself is the cause and solution to her question of survival. I was almost positive that the ending would be different than it turned out to be, with so many factors working against her. The moment when the film’s title really becomes explanatory is at the very end, with the camera at foot level looking up to a towering vision of survival and human potential. I couldn’t help but think as the credits began to roll, that mankind had taken millions of years to become erect, standing on two legs and looking not down at the ground, but at the sky above. We learned about what was above us and we built ships to carry us there. Glory in discovery, achievement in high technology, we can overcome all odds to survive where other species would fail.
Gravity is a force of nature, it binds all of the universe together and allows for physics to be understood as something as simple as equal and opposite reactions, attractions, and falling forever. Gravity also brings things back down to Earth, including its children; but we are determined children and we stand upright against it. We will fall up again. Soon.