“It really does look like this really beautiful oasis out in the middle of nothingness,” claimed astronaut Ron Garan in an interview, “and if you have a chance for your eyes to adjust, and you can actually see the stars and the Milky Way, it’s this oasis against the backdrop of infinity – this enormous universe behind it.” What Garan was describing is an emotional state which has come to be coined the Overview Effect, a euphoric psychological shift experienced by many astronauts upon seeing the planet Earth from outer space for the first time. Those who undergo the Overview Effect immediately come to see the Earth as a small fragile place populated by a single people who have become separated by meaningless boundaries and conflicts. It sounds like it would be a profound moment for any person to experience.
Unfortunately, Sandra Bullock's character in Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone, doesn't seem to have the time for such lofty thoughts. Instead, as the movie begins, the new-to-outer-space Stone is trying valiantly not to vomit in her space suit (guess she forgot her NASA issued transdermal dimenhydrinate anti-nausea patch), the effects of which are best left to the imagination (no, really, I looked it up for this review and trust me, you just want to leave it alone). And shortly after her less than illustrious inaugural spacewalk, Stone spends the rest of the movie simply trying not to die.
It's a shame Dr. Stone begins the movie in such ill sorts, because it robs her of the chance to appreciate the view the way we viewers can. Gravity opens with an absolutely stunning slow pan across the face of the Earth as seen from low orbit, eventually settling on a trio of astronauts, including Dr. Stone, making repairs to the Hubble Telescope. It's a an amazing shot, making it appear as if the actors are actually floating around 347 miles above the surface of the planet. Sure, there's very little doubt that most of what's on screen at this point is digital, probably even the people, but the fact remains Gravity is a fantastic looking film. I'd have to imagine the only way to you could possibly get a better looking movie set in outer space would be to actually fly up there and film it on location.
The beauty of the moment is fleeting, however, as it's only a matter of minutes before all hell breaks loose. In a botched attempt to destroy an aging spy satellite, a Russian missile has sent a wave of debris rocketing along the orbital path occupied not only by the Hubble, but the International Space Station and China's Tiangong 1 space station as well. The spacewalking astronauts try desperately to make it back to their craft in time to escape the rapidly approaching doom, but the debris field arrives too quickly, devastating the shuttle and leaving everyone but Stone and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) dead.
To give Gravity even more praise for its visuals, it has to be noted that, for once, the 3-D process actually adds something to the film. The scene in which the Hubble is decimated (and the many more like it which follow), with shrapnel flying in all directions and weightless bodies tumbling through the void like out-of-control Cirque du Soleil performers, is made all the more harrowing by objects hurtling out of space directly towards the viewer's face. I'll admit it, I flinched a couple of times. None of this is to say you can't enjoy the movie without seeing it in 3-D, but if you can stomach the ticket price (maybe theaters should start issuing transdermal dimenhydrinate anti-nausea patches as well), it's worth it this time around.
After Stone and Kowalski's miraculous survival, the plot of Gravity becomes an extremely simple one. With their own vessel incapacitated, no way of communicating with ground control, and only 1 1/2 hours before the satellite debris circles the Earth and pummels them again, the two castaways must find some way to make it to one of the neighboring space stations (which NASA estimates at about 100 nautical miles away on a good day) and, hopefully, find a ride home. That's it. There are no fancy plot twists or third act surprises, no cutaways to NASA employees working furiously to formulate a rescue, nothing but Bullock and Clooney drifting through a big bunch of empty space.
By all rights, Gravity should be a bore-fest. In actuality, though, it's flat out exhausting. The tension that director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and his crew manage to drag out of the scenario is nothing short of amazing. With alternating scenes of the actors moving through claustrophobic sets only to have to emerge into the vast openness of space at the worst possible moments (come on, you didn't really think the debris field wasn't going to show back up, did you), the film's brief 90 minute running time is relentless. Without a single soldier or superhero in sight, Gravity manages to be the most satisfying action movie of the year so far.
The movie isn't perfect, of course. Given the scenario, Gravity obviously affords the actors little to work with in terms of dialog, with only the briefest of conversations near the start of the film provided to setup their characters. Kowalski is presented as a jocular self-impressed professional (in other words, George Clooney in a space suit) on his final mission before retirement, while the emotionally distant Stone (sometimes names in movies are clues, you know) is shown to simply be going through the motions, having never recovered from the death of her four year old daughter. After that introduction, most of what the characters go through is simply reacting to the situation, and the acting is relegated mainly to body language, facial expressions, and in Bullock's case, how she breathes during any given scene.
In a certain sense, if Gravity has any one particular fault, it's that it is short on underlying philosophy. Given the setting and its effect ("Overview" or otherwise) on real life astronauts, one couldn't be blamed for expecting a few scenes in which the characters take the time to wax philosophical, but that never really happens. Bullock is given a brief scene in which her character laments having never been taught to pray, and worse, having no one left on Earth to pray for her, but the sentiment is never explored outside the context of whether or not she should persist in her efforts to survive or simply give up and accept death in the colds of space.
And you know, in a way, maybe that makes the movie even more realistic. It's one thing for real life astronauts to experience a dramatic shift in their worldview as they drift peacefully in between the Earth and the Moon. But you'd have to imagine their concerns would be a bit less philosophical if a bunch of blazing Russian space junk suddenly crashed into their capsule and interrupted their poetic musings. Sometimes circumstances in life really do reduce the spiritual issue to one of having to make the choice to keep struggling in spite of seeming insurmountable odds. Perhaps that's why the Church has always recognized perseverance as a moral virtue, because like it or not, we all have to face those moments at some point. Maybe not while hurtling through the vast emptiness of space, of course, but it sure can feel that way sometimes, can't it?