Benjamin is a former volunteer DJ at his local hospital radio station. He has been reviewing films online since 2004.
What's the big deal?
Gravity is a sci-fi thriller film released in 2013 which was directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron. The film follows two astronauts who become stranded in space after their shuttle is destroyed by orbiting debris and their desperate attempts to safely return to Earth. The film stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The film had spent a number of years in development hell at Universal when it became apparent that the filming of the script required some advancement in digital cinematography. Cuaron then became convinced that the film was possible after seeing Avatar and the script found itself at Warner Bros. Released to near universal acclaim from critics - many of whom declared the film the best of 2013 - the film went on to earn numerous accolades and nominations as well as worldwide takings of $723 million, making it the most successful film in either actor's career so far and the eighth most successful release of 2013.
What's it about?
The NASA Space Shuttle Explorer is in orbit around the Earth and is led by veteran mission commander Matt Kowalski. Its primary mission is to conduct repairs and hardware upgrades on the Hubble Space Telescope thanks to mission specialist and first-time astronaut Dr Ryan Stone, working alongside Kowalski who intends to break Anatoli Solovyev's record for spacewalking. During the mission, they are contacted by Mission Control who inform them that a defunct Russian satellite has been destroyed by missile strike which has created an expanding field of space debris in orbit. Initially unconcerned about this, the problem quickly escalates as other communication satellites become damaged by the debris. The mission is quickly aborted and Kowalski and Stone are ordered back to the Explorer for immediate return to Earth.
Unfortunately, they are struck by the debris which causes catastrophic damage to Hubble and the Explorer. Stone is tethered to a section of Hubble which becomes separated, sending her spinning wildly out into space. Rescued by Kowlaski using a Manned Maneuvering Unit or MMU, the pair of them realise that the Explorer has become too damaged to return them to Earth and the rest of the crew are dead. Their only hope is with an escape capsule on the International Space Station (ISS) orbiting some 900 miles away. So with only ninety minutes before the debris field comes around again and oxygen supplies running low, they begin their perilous journey to safety...
Dr Ryan Stone
Lt Matt Kowalski
Alfonso & Jonas Cuaron
Release Date (UK)
7th November, 2013
Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller
Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects
Academy Award Nominations
Best Film, Best Leading Actress (Bullock), Best Production Design
What's to like?
Some films demand to be shown on a bigger screen, usually due to the incredible amount of visual effects that benefit from such a viewing experience. Take the aforementioned Avatar or the opening battle sequence in The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring. Gravity is the first film I have seen that justifies a trip to the theatre in every single shot - the film is a loving and deep tribute to the magic of space travel that has been all but forgotten these days from the long shots that absorb the wonder of the Earth against the blackness of the surrounding universe to the intricate details of the various spacecraft that these characters cling desperately to, unable to control their movements or momentum. Your brain keeps telling you that this is obviously CG but your eyes continue to be deceived and you slowly believe that this was a film actually shot in space. Cuaron is a director who works well with the little things - take the reflections seen in the windows of the Soyez or the surface of Dr Stone's visor. These details all make the film worryingly credible, which helps to heighten the tension further.
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Bullock provides one of the best performances of her career as Dr Stone, a woman unused to the dangers of space travel and haunted by the needless death of her young daughter. I never doubted Bullock's credibility for a second as she feels like a space virgin, dealing with circumstances beyond her control and fear beyond her expectation. Certainly, she's more believable than Clooney's ego-centric maverick who essentially feels like an extension of his own public persona. But this is as much Bullock's film as it is Cuaron's although I must also credit Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki for the astonishing camerawork. The film itself seems to spin around as much as the action does, making us float around in space as well as drift from first- to third-person perspectives to capture the inner drama and outer carnage. It's the most realistic looking space-based film I've seen since Apollo 13 and while it may be a fictional story, the fact that many people question its realism is testament to how close the filmmakers got.
- The film's depiction of ever-increasing debris is called the Kessler syndrome, named after the NASA scientist who proposed the theory in 1978. If the ISS were destroyed in orbit, the amount of debris orbited the Earth would prevent any space missions for decades.
- Aningaaq, the voice on the radio Dr Stone communicates with, is the subject of a short film directed by Jonas Cuaron, Alfonso's son and the film's co-writer. He is an Inuit fisherman living on the frozen fjords of Greenland with his partner, his baby and a number of dogs, one of whom is gravely ill. He is played by Orto Ignatiussen who sadly passed away in 2019.
- The voice of Mission Control is played by Ed Harris who also played the mission director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. Harris also played real-life astronaut John Glen in the 1983 movie The Right Stuff.
- Warner Bros. originally wanted Angelina Jolie cast as Dr Stone but she declined due to scheduling conflicts with her own directorial debut In The Land Of Blood And Honey. Other actresses considered were Blake Lively, Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman before Universal acquired the rights and cast Bullock in 2010.
What's not to like?
I can't really mark the film down for its scientific inaccuracies because a) it's a drama film and b) only astrophysicists and astronauts would pick up on them anyway. Seeing Bullock and Clooney bounce around solar panels and crash into airlocks felt real enough to me so I see no reason to question the validity. Besides, the film makes plenty of effort in other areas too such as the appearance of tears floating in zero gravity and the almost deafening silence in space apart from the dull thud of tools being used. The silence is powerful enough on its own to raise the tension so I must confess, I wasn't a fan of the soundtrack by Steven Price. There's nothing wrong with the music itself but I disagreed with its use. It reminded me that I was watching a film and not some tragic documentary.
And that's kinda the problem for me. As much as I enjoyed the film and would recommend it, there are one or two moments that underline the film's dramatic credentials over its scientific ones. The most obvious moment is when Stone strips out of her spacesuit and floats, adopting a foetal position while cables drift into shot to resemble an umbilical cord. Like that other timeless space-based movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, the film interjects moments that are more symbolic rather than narratively cohesive. It's only on later reflection that these moments make sense but at the time, I felt they were a bit hamfisted. The film's themes are less subtle than they are in Cuaron's later masterpiece Roma but the film's gripping story set in an environment we don't see that often in films portrayed this realistically overcomes this incredibly minor niggles.
Should I watch it?
Gravity is one of the best space-based movies to emerge from Hollywood in generations, an amazing spectacle that combines visual excellence with a great story and the sort of performance Bullock doesn't give often enough. Gripping from the start and beautifully filmed, this is one sci-fi film that doesn't need aliens or other traditional tropes to find and entertain its audience. Just don't blame me if your vertigo starts to play up, though.
Great For: reigniting interest in space travel, helping me to forgive Bullock's appearance in Speed 2: Cruise Control, theatrical releases - this film demands a giant screen
Not So Great For: anyone afraid of flying, flat Earthers, experienced space travellers and astrophysicists
What else should I watch?
It was Stanley Kubrick's 2001 that first accurately depicted life in space, combining inventive cinematography and set design to replicate the slow chaos of zero gravity but as a sci-fi film, it had a built-in escape clause to reintroduce gravity on spaceships of the future. But Apollo 13 took the most realistic approach seen at that time, filming on board reduced gravity aircraft (so called "vomit comets") so the cast were as close as possible to being in zero gravity. Crucially, the film doesn't embellish much for dramatic effect because the story itself was dramatic enough as well as based on an actual event.
Since the release of Gravity, we have indeed seen an explosion of interest in space flight - in movies, at least. With NASA's Space Shuttle retired and private companies now competing for viable alternatives, audiences have had to rely on films like Interstellar, The Martian, Hidden Figures and First Man to depict life in space. The first two are big-budget sci-fi adventures that may make more of an effort to be realistic than, say, Armageddon which is about as realistic as a cheap waxwork dummy. But the latter two films deal with the early days of actual space flight, following the work of previously unacknowledged 'human computers' behind the scenes at NASA and Neil Armstrong respectively.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox