I’m not a great George Clooney fan and I don’t like Sandra Bullock, so the obvious choice for last night’s viewing was this (sort of) two-hander starring the pair of them. Although I’d say the real star of the film is gravity itself: what it does, how much we need it and how disastrously things can go wrong without it.
The action begins with three astronauts out in space tethered by umbilical cords to their spacecraft. They are in constant communication with each other and with Houston and the whole thing appears highly realistic – though I always think it doesn’t matter if something is realistic so long as it is plausible. Still, I’m quite prepared to believe that ‘Gravity’ is highly realistic. The rest of the crew are on board ship but an accident wipes them out: space debris from a Russian satellite (it would have to be Russian) smash into the ship, allowing the air to escape and so suffocating the crew: when the two outside discover them their faces have completely imploded. The ship is now unviable, leaving the two of them alone trying to figure out how to get home.
The acting is fine; there’s a sort of keep-calm-and-carry-on lack of urgency in their interactions; no shouting, no crying, no raised voices, just calm discussion. But what makes it so watchable are the special effects. I’m not usually a fan of having too much in the F/X department but in this case what they do is to show us what life would be like without gravity.
I wish I knew how to convey to you the effect of the cinematography; because if there’s one thing this film does it’s to show us how objects (including human bodies) behave when there’s nothing to slow them down. The slightest movement, whether voluntary or involuntary, can cause the object to travel in one direction at speed until the movement is corrected. All the astronauts have to help them are the jet-packs on their backs and when these fail, they’re at the mercy of quite literally astronomical forces. The slightest collision can cause the object (or person) to veer off at unpredictable angles and become entangled in yet more spinning, colliding debris and the effect when yet more space junk hits the ship is like being in the inside of a liquidiser. All this while the Earth wheels underneath giving us glimpses of outlines: Italy, South America, India. This trailer should give you some idea:
There’s probably a name for the type of film which starts out with a whole team and ends with one person, but I don’t know it. After the ship is destroyed Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to rescue teammate Kowalski (George Clooney) but in the end he sacrifices himself to save her. Dr Stone decides to jet off towards the Chinese station which from her perspective is a light in the sky about 100 miles away. When she gets there it’s unmanned but at least after a series of complicated manoeuvres avoiding debris and struggling with the airlock, she’s in a place of safety. Or so it seems: one characteristic of this film is that each time she finds safety some new danger appears; it’s quite nail-biting. In this case the danger is fire: a random spark has ignited and one section of the station is burning. She tries unsuccessfully to shut it down but now has no choice but to evacuate, managing to locate and enter the escape pod and blast off for home.
Is that it? Will she finally get back? It seems so; splashing down in a freshwater lake, she pulls off her spacesuit which having kept her alive is now drowning her, and climbs out. As she dries off she gives us several minutes of her impossibly slim body (reminding me of Julia Roberts’ character in Notting Hill who confesses to having been on a diet every day for the last ten years.)
We were disappointed that the film ended there and didn’t show her returning to civilisation, but that’s a small nit to pick. I have never seen a film that so brilliantly depicted what it must be like to travel in space and how terrible things can be when they go wrong.
‘Gravity’ is streaming now on i-player and probably lots of other places as well: see it while you can.