October 8, 2013 by Zack
NOTE: I am reviewing this film after seeing it on IMAX 3-D. I recommend this be the way the film is seen, to get the ultimate experience of it.
I’ve always enjoyed Alfonso Cuaron’s films. From “Y Tu Mama Tambien” to “Children of Men”, I like that he seems to do things his way and doesn’t back down from studio pressure or anything. His films are fresh and honest, and aren’t afraid to be tragic and dark. He carries this tradition on in the big budget “Gravity”, a film that is not only an incredible visual experience, but also a pretty incredible emotional one as well.
We are introduced immediately to a space mission already in progress between veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a bio-medical engineer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). They are operating at two opposite places of a career: Ryan at the beginning, Matt at the end. He waxes poetic about old stories to Houston Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris), and teases Dr. Stone while listening to lazy, irritatingly twangy country music. Then, the mission is abruptly aborted when Houston informs them that during a Russian missile strike to destroy an out of service satellite, space debris is headed their way and they’re ordered back to the Hubble. But Dr. Stone moves a little too slowly and they can’t all get back in when the debris hits, knocking the Hubble out of commission and killing everyone on the shuttle. Dr. Stone and Kowalski are the only survivors, and their communication with Houston gets cut off, leaving them stranded.
But they’re not completely out of options. There is an ISS (International Space Station) around them with an escape pod, and they can make it there before the debris comes at them again. The ISS is Russian as well, but according to NASA, all escape pods run basically the same. While on their way to the ISS, Dr. Stone is running out of oxygen, but Kowalski assures her she can still live in the suit if she takes smaller breaths (“Sip, don’t gulp. It’s wine, not beer.”). He tries to get personal information out of her; but she is very closed about herself, even though she does reveal that she had a daughter who died in an accident at school one day very suddenly during recess.
Once they find the ISS, however, things don’t turn for the better for them. They find that the ISS has been damaged, and the crew has already vacated, leaving only one pod behind that has already deployed its parachute. This leaves the pod useless to return to Earth. Again, Kowalski has a plan. There’s another space station a little ways away (“It’s a Sunday drive”) owned by the Chinese. Again, their pods work the same way so they should be able to get back home using that. En route, however, Stone’s leg gets caught on one of the parachute cords, and she can only let Kowalski drift off into space to untangle herself. He tells her to let him go, and she’s alone to try and find the Chinese space station.
The remainder of the film is Stone’s personal sojourn, an allegory of sorts of re-birth and resurrection. There are many symbols, some overt and some subtle, and the film can certainly be seen as a metaphor for the cycle of life. Kowalski resonates with Stone, and there’s even a glimpse of him again, giving her hope that she’s not really all alone out there.
The film thrives on pulse pounding suspense, especially during the chaotic space debris sequences and when she’s facing a crisis in the Russian Soyuz. But where the film is strongest is in the quiet moments when Stone is left to face herself. There’s a wonderfully painful and emotional sequence in which Stone wants to give up and let go. She reaches communication with a random person (possibly Chinese) who has picked up her frequency from his house. He can’t understand her, and calls her “Mayday” (since that’s what she keeps repeating), and she listens to hear a dog in the background, and the sound of a baby. She finds comfort in this, because even though it’s remote, it’s a connection to life–something she has lost a connection with both literally and figuratively.
Obviously, she does not give up. And all of this builds to an incredibly intense climactic ending that really keeps you clinging to your seat. I won’t reveal how it ends, of course. But at 91 minutes, you won’t be waiting that long for it. And you’ll be so engrossed in all the goings-on you won’t even feel the time.
The performance by Sandra Bullock is one for the ages, and will certainly come with an Oscar nomination. And well deserved. All in all, is film will make you feel like you just went through all of it with Dr. Stone and Kowalski right next to you, and that’s a great achievement by Cuaron. It’s one of the few films, like “Avatar”, where 3-D actually makes you feel “a part” of the whole experience.