*****SPACE SHUTTLE-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
In 620 or so columns, I was surprised to realize that I’d not yet written about director/cowriter Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity”, a movie that hits its decade mark this year. I remember going to see “Gravity” twice in theaters, because it was such a cinematic experience. Almost like a 1990s IMAX movie of touring the Grand Canyon, or flying in a hot air balloon, but with spaceships and A-list actors. As a longtime space geek, I really enjoyed Cuaron’s nicely-crafted ride, too. There was a lot of heart in the experience.
Actress Sandra Bullock (“Demolition Man”) plays a doctor turned astronaut who finds herself alone in orbit, following a horrific, though not-entirely-implausible disaster in space. Yes, much of the movie’s space science is deliberately fudged for the sake of entertainment (I’ll get into all of that soon), but “Gravity” isn’t aiming to be a space docudrama (we have 1995’s “Apollo 13” for that). “Gravity” is more about the power, danger, and emotion of spaceflight. As the opening text cards tell us, space is antithetical to life, and that notion is hammered home every few minutes.
For this review, I once again fired up my HD digital projector and opened the 7 ft/2 meter collapsible screen to recapture that theatrical feeling I had nearly ten years ago. It worked.
“Gravity” doesn’t take place in a specific time. It’s more a fanciful near-present, where the space shuttle (a fictional orbiter named Explorer), the International Space Station (ISS), and the Chinese space station Tiangong somehow exist in active service together. We also see an astronaut using an untethered MMU (manned maneuvering unit)—a device that hasn’t been used on a space shuttle mission since 1984. Despite the movie’s respect for hardware realism, it’s more than willing to bend the laws of physics, too. Bear in mind this is entertainment, not a Caltech lecture.
The movie opens with space shuttle Explorer servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, fitting it with a new piece of hardware that (for some reason) can only be installed by a civilian doctor named Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Ryan is not exactly keen on the whole spacewalking-EVA thing, despite her supportive crew and a steely Mission Control capcom (Ed Harris, in a deft bit of casting). As Ryan works on Hubble, veteran astronaut Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is testing the untethered MMU prototype, casually annoying Dr. Stone with his country music, tales of drunken escapades and casual (though innocent) flirtations. Matt is the very embodiment of the confident, lovably arrogant US astronaut.
Note: In this digitally-shot, largely CGI movie, almost no practical elements were used for most shots, save for the actors’ faces. The backgrounds, spacesuit detailings, and spaceship exteriors/interiors were entirely computer-generated, with large interactive lighting rigs used to simulate changing sunlight in orbit, as well. The movie’s technology is a precursor to today’s full-on LED wraparound environments (see: “The Mandalorian” and other current VR-made movies/TV shows).
As another Explorer crew member named Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) performs his own EVA, Matt flies over to Ryan and gives her a hand with the Hubble’s stubborn electronics. Matt teases rookie Ryan, who only had six months to train for her role in the mission. As they’re getting ready to finish, they get an urgent message from Mission Control to abort the mission immediately—a Russian missile has destroyed a defunct spy satellite, which has caused a massive chain reaction of satellite collisions (an effect known as Kessler Syndrome). The debris from the collisions is headed directly for the vulnerable Explorer. The flying cloud of shrapnel, each piece traveling at 17,500 mph/28,000 kph, has effectively gutted Earth’s entire network of communications satellites.
Note: “Gravity” makes quite a few deliberate scientific fudges for entertainment’s sake, but this is one of the more audacious. Yes, Kessler Syndrome is very real, but communications satellites orbit much higher than manned orbiting spacecraft. Space stations and shuttles orbit anywhere from 120 to 300 miles up (193 to 482 km). Communications satellites typically orbit at geosynchronous orbit (moving at the same rotational rate as Earth) at an altitude of 22,300 miles (35,800 km), or roughly a tenth of the way to the Moon (!). But… if “Gravity” put people and satellites in their respective orbits? You wouldn’t have a movie, so there you go.
Matt and Ryan are unable to get back inside of the orbiter as the debris cloud arrives. The high-speed shrapnel then rips into Shariff, killing him instantly. The debris also cripples Explorer, effectively destroying their ride home. Matt and a terrified Ryan manage to rendezvous with each other following the catastrophe, tethering together for safety. As Ryan’s panicked respiration uses up precious oxygen, Matt aims his rocket-powered MMU in the direction of Explorer to do a damage assessment…
Note: In contrast to the authentic lack of sound in space, composer Steven Price uses sharp, discordant musical phrases to represent the killer shrapnel cloud, with a pulse-like rhythm representing the characters’ panic. His slicing, chaotic notes give the cloud a distinctive menace.
Matt and Ryan manage, with much difficulty, to keep themselves tethered together during the trip back to Explorer, which has been badly compromised to the vacuum of space. We see personal effects flying through the broken windows, as well as the grisly, flash-frozen corpse of their commander (Amy Warren). With Explorer a nonviable means of returning home, Matt gets the idea to fly over to the nearby ISS, which is just on the horizon. During their tandem trip to the station, Matt coaxes Ryan to open up about herself. He learns that she is a single mother still grieving the death of a young daughter who died in a freak playground accident. Despite her obvious fear of space travel, Ryan appreciates the distraction of work, and the silencing of her own painful memories…
Note: I realize Dr. Ryan Stone being a ‘reluctant astronaut’ makes for a better audience avatar, but there’s no such thing as a reluctant astronaut. The few real-life astronauts I’ve met, including Dr. Buzz Aldrin (Gemini, Apollo) and Victor Glover (ISS), are competitive, ambitious and deeply self-motivated people. Anyone less than wholly committed and eager to fly into outer space would never make it past NASA’s, Roscosmos’ or the ESA’s rigorous and challenging Astronaut Candidacy programs. Yes, some astronauts have suffered depression upon returning from space (that’s well-documented, in fact), but until then, they are driven and highly motivated. However, this is a movie consciously designed to give an average audience a first-person experience of a space disaster. “Gravity” is more turbocharged thrill ride than reality, so I get what the movie is doing for our sake.
With the fuel in Matt’s MMU running low, and Ryan’s increasing panic causing her to waste her remaining oxygen, the two of them will have only one chance to rendezvous with the abandoned ISS, which only has one remaining Russian-built Soyuz return vehicle docked to it.
Note: I don’t mean to nitpick too hard on the movie’s space physics, since I accept it is an action movie, not PBS’ Nova. However, the notion of simply jet-packing over the space station from the shuttle is ridiculous; they occupy different orbits. Matt and Ryan would have to lower or raise their current orbit in order to match it. Such precise maneuvering requires hours, or days, of gradually adjusting their orbital trajectories to synch with that of the ISS. On the plus side, the movie’s lack of sound in space, as well as the internal thumping ‘felt’ in the soundtrack whenever characters impact an object at high speeds feels accurate. “Gravity” is more about capturing the harsh emotional authenticity of spaceflight, if not the orbital mechanics.
Nitpick: George Clooney continually mispronounces the name of the Russian return vehicle as “So-yez,” not “So-yuz” (Soyuz is Russian for “union”). It’s not terribly important, but a seasoned astronaut like Matt, who’s familiar with flying such craft, probably wouldn’t make this mistake.
Arriving at the station, Ryan and Matt see a tangled parachute from the docked Soyuz craft snagged on the station’s solar panels. Matt is just about out of fuel, and an oxygen-depleted Ryan begins to feel the effects of carbon dioxide poisoning, as they attempt to hook their tether lines onto the ISS. Matt realizes he has too much inertia in the wrong direction—effectively pulling a tethered Ryan away from the station. He uncouples his link to the tether, allowing her to attach to the station by herself. Desperate for oxygen, Ryan enters the station’s airlock, and immediately pressurizes it, taking in huge gulps of air like a caught fish placed back into water. She then peels off her suit and allows her tired, traumatized self a moment’s rest, curling up in a fetal position. Soon, she’s on the station’s comms, trying to reach Matt (no luck) and sending a blind message to Mission Control, detailing the loss of Explorer and its crew.
Note: The scene of Ryan curling up in a fetal position after securing herself within the pressurized airlock is very accurate. Many astronauts report resting comfortably in space while their bodies curl up into a prenatal state. Most astronauts sleep in secure bags attached to bulkheads, while their weightless arms tend to float ahead of them, almost like somnambulistic zombies.
Ryan’s respite aboard the ISS doesn’t last, after blobs of zero-g flames escape from an unattended experiment furnace. The station is on fire. With almost no time to react, Ryan retreats to another airlock, where she dons a Russian-made spacesuit (which fits, luckily), and climbs out onto the exterior of the battered station in order to reach the Soyuz lifeboat. Another complication occurs as the Kessler-shrapnel returns, as it will every 90 minutes, threatening to rip the fragile ISS to shreds. Ryan manages to reach the Soyuz just as the debris trashes the station. After undocking, Ryan realizes that the craft’s parachute lines are still entangled on the station’s solar panels, holding her Soyuz in place. Ryan has to perform one more dangerous EVA in order to detach the large bolts holding the parachute lines. Barely succeeding in time, Ryan quickly retreats into the safety of her Soyuz, quickly reading its instruction manual to re-familiarize herself with the ship.
Note: Once again, Steven Price’s chaotic, slicing, pulsing music gives the Kessler debris cloud a theme almost as recognizable as John Williams’ iconic theme for the shark in “JAWS.”
Since her new ride doesn’t have parachutes, Ryan is unable to use it to return to Earth. Resigned to die in the cold comfort of the Soyuz, Ryan makes a final attempt to communicate with Mission Control, accidentally making contact with an Inuit man named Aningaaq (Orto Ignatiussen), on a private radio receiver. While they don’t share a common language, the familiar sounds of Aningaaq’s baby crying and his dog howling offer temporary comfort to a tearful Ryan. Soon, however, the full weight of her imminent death sinks in. Realizing she’s going to die soon, she cuts the ship’s cabin pressure, and prepares for a peaceful asphyxiation…
Note: While I appreciated that Ryan’s tears didn’t stream down her cheeks (as they would in normal gravity), they wouldn’t necessarily float away from her face, either. From what I’ve read and heard firsthand at various Planetary Society events (with astronaut guest speakers), tears tend to blob over the human eye, with surface tension keeping them in place, unless they’re rubbed by the astronaut’s own hands. Once again, Ryan’s tears are a minor nitpick, but I was glad to see that the issue of zero-g crying was at least addressed (as it’s often ignored entirely in other space movies).
An unconscious Ryan is unexpectedly awakened by a loud banging on the outer hatch. It’s Matt. Signaling that he’s opening the hatch to enter, Ryan panics, since she’s not wearing a space helmet. Matt enters the capsule anyway, as Ryan clenches her eyes shut and shields her exposed face with her arms. Once inside, a broadly-grinning Matt immediately restores cabin pressure, and they talk. Ryan can’t understand how Matt survived, and he tells her an implausible story about spare battery power. Matt’s disappointed that Ryan was so ready to give up, and he reminds her that the crippled, spent Soyuz she’s flying still has spare fuel in its landing rocket system. He tells her to head for the nearby Chinese space station, the Tiangong. Once there, she can take its Shenzhou lifeboat home, since its design is very similar to Soyuz. After Matt’s encouraging words, Ryan is jolted awake by an oxygen alarm—her vision of the late Matt Kowalski was only a dream, but his words were true. With a renewed will to live (for Matt and her daughter’s sakes), Ryan restores cabin pressure, resets the landing rockets for emergency thrust, and sets her sights on the Tiangong…
Note: The Matt-dream sequence was a clever storytelling device. It offered Ryan a means to give herself all the information she needed to survive. Ryan more or less knew what she had to do, but she didn’t trust herself. Her subconscious mind then allowed that vital information to come from the charming, confident veteran astronaut, Lt. Matt Kowalski, instead.
Upon reaching the Tiangong, she notices that the abandoned station’s orbit is rapidly decaying, as it takes on atmospheric drag. She has little time to reach the station’s last remaining Shenzhou escape vehicle, before the entire station burns up in Earth’s atmosphere. With her Soyuz capsule unable to stop in time, she dons her space helmet, grabs a fire extinguisher for thrust, and leaps out of its open hatch in order to fly herself (without a spacesuit or MMU) directly to the Tiangong. She uses up the extinguisher’s fuel, and barely manages a hard landing on the station’s hull…
Note: Okay, okay, I won’t reiterate how orbital transfers don’t work that way. But they don’t. Just sayin’…
Making her way into the Shenzhou capsule, she slips inside, takes her helmet off, and begins initializing the emergency launch sequence. As the capsule is freed, the Tiangong plunges deeper into the atmosphere and breaks up around her. Bits of the shattering, burning station graze the capsule’s hull. Unable to read Chinese, Ryan makes educated guesses with the Shenzhou‘s controls, based on her familiarity with the Soyuz design. Somehow managing to right the bobbing capsule into a loose angle for reentry, she plunges it into the atmosphere…
Note: That Ryan somehow (?) manages to get the Shenzhou module into a correct position for reentry at the last possible moment is another one of the many movie-physics miracles “Gravity” pulls in its final act. Reentry corridors into Earth’s atmosphere are very precise. Too shallow, and a capsule will skip off the atmosphere. Too deep, and a capsule will burn up. However, we see the Shenzhou bobbing (and burning) recklessly in space before it finally hits the right angle at the last moment. All the same, I accept it; just as I accept sound in space for “Star Wars”, or the exploding shark at the end of “JAWS.” If the movie earns its entertainment stripes, I willfully suspend disbelief.
Once in the atmosphere, the Shenzhou‘s parachutes deploy and the retrorockets fire at the moment the capsule splashes down in an unknown lake. Due to the extreme heat of her reentry, a fire breaks out in the overheated capsule’s interior, and Ryan hits the emergency control button to blow the hatch. Water floods into the capsule, as the weight of Ryan’s spacesuit begins to weigh her down. Drowning and disoriented, she notices a nearby frog in the water headed to the surface. Quickly ditching her cumbersome spacesuit, Ryan strips down to her underwear, and follows the frog…
Note: This sequence brings to mind the near-drowning of US astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom (1926-1967) following his suborbital flight aboard the Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7. Grissom claimed that his emergency hatch “just blew” shortly after he achieved splashdown. Naysayers claim that Grissom panicked and blew the hatch prematurely, which led to the valuable instruments aboard falling to the bottom of the Atlantic, until the craft was recovered in July of 1999; some 38 years after its flight into space. Research into the recovered Liberty Bell proved that Grissom was telling the truth—Grissom did not blow the escape hatch himself; it was triggered accidentally.
The movie’s final moments see Ryan Stone make her way to the shores of this unknown lake, feeling Earth’s gravity for the first time in awhile. She grips the mud with her hands; grateful to be alive and back on terra firma. Feeling gravity’s weight on her tired body, she slowly stands, and begins to walk again…
Note: The final scene is an elegant encapsulation of humanity’s evolution from water to land, following our earliest origins in the fiery heart of space. Sandra Bullock gives a helluva performance.
Summing It Up
Cowritten by director Alfonso Cuaron’s son, Jonas, and photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki (Cuaron’s collaborator on 2006’s “Children of Men”), this US-UK coproduction (written/directed and photographed by three Mexican-born filmmakers) was pioneering in many ways. With almost nonstop action, there is still just enough breathing room to allow us to feel Dr. Stone’s plight, and to afford Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock the chance to flex her acting (and bodily) muscles.
Yes, much has been made of the movie’s oscillating space science; some of it is very authentic, while other parts seem as fanciful as Star Wars. However, “Gravity” isn’t a documentary—it’s an experience designed to convey the thrilling danger of space travel in a way that few modern films have without the use of aliens, or space battles. It also helped to usher in a new wave of science-heavy sci-fi movies, such as 2014’s “Interstellar,” 2015’s “The Martian” and 2016’s “The Arrival” (which also centered on a grieving mother’s encounter with the extraordinary).
At its core, “Gravity” is a virtual first-person space adventure that offers more emotional fireworks than other high-octane space operas. At a brisk, eventful 91 minutes, the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, either.
Enjoy the ride.
Where To Watch
“Gravity” is currently streaming on HBOMax, and can also be stream/rented/purchased via iTunes, AmazonPrime and YouTube (rental/purchase prices vary). The movie is also available for purchase on physical media (DVD/BluRay) from Warner Home Video.