Tuesday, October 15, 2013


Gravity tells the terrifying story of Dr. Ryan Stone as she struggles to survive and return to Earth after disaster strikes her space mission. Stone, a medical engineer, is on her first mission led by veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalsky. The two of them along with Engineer Shariff are on a space walk outside the space shuttle, Explorer. While Kowalsky is on a space walk using an astronaut propulsion unit (MMU), Stone works on a part of the Hubble Space Telescope despite feeling nauseous and Shariff is tethered to the shuttle.

They learn from Mission Control that space debris from a Russian missile test on a satellite will not be a problem for them. What starts as a routine work assignment outside the shuttle soon turns into a disaster of unparallelled proportions as the three astronauts are told they must abort their mission and return as quickly as possible to the shuttle. The debris from the satellite has now crossed into their orbit and is destroying, one after another, the satellites orbiting Earth. The astronauts do not make it to safety and contact is lost with Mission Control.

As the shuttle is pounded by the satellite debris, Shariff is killed as are the crew inside, and Stone is sent spinning into orbit around Earth, untethered to anything. Panicked and breathing rapidly, Dr. Stone is eventually retrieved by Kowalsky who tethers her to him and tells her that they will use his MMU to travel to the International Space Station which is about 100 km away. As they approach the ISS, the two discover that one of the Soyuz capsules is gone while the remaining one has had its parachute deployed and is entangled with the station. Kowalsky tells Stone that the remaining Soyuz can be used to travel to the Chinese station where they can use the module from that station to return to Earth.

Stone and Kowalsky working on Hubble.
Running out of propulsion and oxygen, the two make it to the ISS, but are unable to grab onto the any part of the station. Instead, Stone's foot becomes snagged in the lines of the Soyuz parachute, while Kowalsky misses the station entirely. But because he is tethered to Stone, Kowalsky is prevented from spinning off into space. Realizing that his momentum will eventually pull Stone free of the station, Kowalsky untethers himself from Stone, who begs him not to do this. Instead, Kowalsky encourages Stone to save herself telling her that she can find a way back home. What follows is Stone's struggle to save herself as she encounters one obstacle after another, including at one point losing the will to fight on, only to be encouraged by what appears to be a dream or hallucination of Kowalsky.

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, who also wrote the screenplay with his son Jose, Gravity is filled with gorgeous cinematography that captures the stark and deadly beauty of space. Known as a two-hander because it stars only two main characters, the first forty minutes of Gravity morphs from the beauty of a tranquil space walk into unparalleled terror as Dr. Stone catapults through space, unable to right herself due to the lack of gravity. The suspense continues throughout the film as one problem after another appears, and as Stone must face down her deepest fear of dying alone.

Despite some obvious (and not so obvious) errors in the science of space, the movie quite effectively gives viewers a real sense of what it is like to be orbiting around the Earth and working in space with minimal effects of gravity. For the most part, movie-goers will get the general understanding that this is truly an alien environment which requires significant training on the part of the astronauts in order to function at a high level. For example, certain actions when done in space have unexpected consequences. This was shown by Stone attempting to put out a fire in the space station only to knock herself almost senseless by the push of the exhalant from the fire extinguisher.

In order to recreate the weightlessness of space actress Sandra Bullock who plays the part of Dr. Ryan Stone had to endure filming in what is called a Light Box which is a 6 meter high box outfitted with over 4000 LED bulbs. The lights were used to project images of Earth and space. At other times, Bullock was filmed as she moved underwater or was held suspended by a set of 12 wires which were then manipulated by puppeteers.

Stone struggling to leave the space station.
But Gravity, for all its cinematic beauty and suspense is really a movie about what's going on in the mind of the main character Dr. Ryan Stone. Stone while talking to Kowalski admits that she does nothing in her life except work and drive. She confesses that her life lost its meaning when her young daughter died in a playground accident.  Unable to come to terms with this loss, unable to let go, she has become a woman totally focused on her work. In an apparition when Stone has given up and decides to die,  Kowalski tells her the precise way for her to survive this current disaster and to come to terms with her daughter's death, is for her to let go. Let go of her fear and let go of the past and decide to live again.

Throughout the movie the overarching theme is one of rebirth, beginning again after a terrible time of trial. When Stone barely manages to make it into the International Space Station after running out of oxygen, we see her curled into a fetal position against the backdrop of the sun shining through the the airlock portal.  The scenes of Stone tethered to several of the different modules reminds us of the fragile nature of existence in space, much like the unborn baby in its mother's womb. At the end of the movie, Stone endures a fiery re-entry only to have to fight for her life, on Earth this time,  struggling out of her heavy space suit and crawling in a primal way out of the lake she has crash landed into. After all this, Ryan Stone rediscovers the beauty of living.

Gravity is only 90 minutes in length but that is more than enough time for viewers to become fully invested emotionally in the story this movie tells. Sandra Bullock deserves another Oscar for her brilliant performance as Ryan Stone and George Clooney with his Buzz Lightyear looks, is perfect in his supporting role as Matt Kowalsky. Gravity may just be the cinematic surprise in a year that sees the second installments of what are sure to be mega-hits, Thor, Hunger Games and The Hobbit.

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