Sandra Bullock in a space suit, Gravity

Gravity

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

14 April

 

Sputnik 2 falls from orbit, 1958

On this day in 1958, the second satellite to be launched into Earth orbit, Sputnik 2, fell back to earth. It had been launched on 3 November 1957 and was carrying Laika, a samoyed terrier cross chosen for her good nature – the first animal launched into space. Sputnik 2 carried enough food, water and air to keep Laika alive for ten days, but because of a malfunction, the temperature inside Sputnik 2 got too high (104ºF/40ºC) and Laika died after a few hours into the mission, from heat and stress. If she had not died one version of events suggests she would have been euthanised before Sputnik began its re-entry into the atmosphere. Another is that she would simply have fried along with the capsule. Images of Laika in orbit are undoubtedly faked, or taken from later missions, since Sputnik 2 had no camera on board.

 

 

 

Gravity (2013, dir: Alfonso Cuarón)

About a third of the way into Gravity – a film about an astronaut struggling for survival after a space walk goes awry – Sandra Bullock, our plucky spacewoman, picks up a fire extinguisher and gives it a parp to put out a fire. She is instantly blasted backwards. Newton’s third law of motion – any action has an equal and opposite reaction – has been demonstrated. Earlier we have seen thrilling, brilliant demonstrations of the first law (an object keeps moving unless something stops it), and his second (it’s harder to stop a heavy moving object than a light one). And we’ll go on seeing Newton’s laws demonstrated again and again, right up to the very last shot of the film (no spoilers), when the film’s title comes up in big letters – GRAVITY – to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.
If that sounds boring – a film about physics – then you’re probably a dullard and you certainly haven’t seen Gravity, which must be the best sci-fi film of all time, or in the reckoning at least. The opening sequence – Bullock out in space nervous, George Clooney reassuring her with his Gorgeous George voice – is a piece of conceptual, special-effects genius, put together with total skill so that everything from the camera to the script to the intelligent, largely orchestra-free soundtrack combines first to lock us firmly into the time, the place and the situation, and then to keep us there, with the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention. I’m being deliberately cagey about the plot, because this is also a very plot driven film too, with almost every “crucial next move” being a life and death one, apart from the couple of breathers that director Alfonso Cuarón and co-writer/son Jonás Cuarón gives us. Basically, Gravity is like that bit in a film where someone is hanging over a precipice by their fingernails, extended to feature length.
As a piece of kinetic cinema Gravity is close to perfect in every way. The production design catches that inky black/blinding white space look that no one since Stanley Kubrick seems to have been too bothered with. Then there’s Bullock, in Tom Hanks mode as the everyperson thrust into extraordinary peril. And Mr Clooney, whose “coffeetime George” shtick seems to be a furball to some people’s enjoyment, is also bang on the money – he’s meant to be a highly experienced and slightly smug senior officer (not uncoincidentally male) and what Cuarón does with the expectations that this sort of persona generates is another masterstroke.
Talking of expectations, Cuarón again manages these brilliantly in the odd scene where Bullock goes into “hokey existential” mode – the “I wish I’d been a better person” stuff which so often features in films like this. Again, just as you’re setting the viewing controls to autopilot while this naffness plays itself out, Cuarón pulls the rug out from under the feet. And you can have that mixed metaphor for free.
OK, OK, so nothing can be that perfect. Objections? Let’s just say that you might be thinking, by about the third time that Bullock has avoided being blasted off into oblivion, that she’s been extraordinarily lucky. You might also start wondering just why there are so many American films about blameless individuals removed from any social and political context, embattled, fighting the entire hostile universe (Robert Redford is currently doing something similar on a boat in All Is Lost). You might balk at some of the Kubrick references – Bullock being shot as some sort of “star child”, a bright ring of light around her, almost translucent skin, innocent, only the thumb-sucking missing. None of it bothered me because none of it slowed down the film, which has decided that what the film is “about” must take second place to what it is, a riveting adventure told at breakneck speed whose intention is to put your heart in your mouth and keep it there. Job done.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Emmanuel Lubezki’s innovative breathtaking cinematography
  • Steven Price’s score – thrilling yet different
  • The winner of seven Oscars – the right seven too
  • The nods to SFX guru Douglas Trumbull (2001, Close Encounters)

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Gravity – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “Gravity”

  1. Did those who've written glowing reviews of Gravity see the same movie I did? Look, I wanted to like this flick, I really did. And I don't want to rag on it, but if you're going to make a dramatic science thriller, you had better get it right or expect to catch it from the smart people. Despite the cosmic setting, the only star I can give Gravity is for the computer generated graphics.That said, this is not a movie for intellectuals and those of a scientific bent will be sorely disappointed. What made Ron Howard's Apollo 13 so gripping was its dramatic realism and superb acting. Unfortunately, none of those adjectives applies to Gravity, with the possible exception of some drama. However, for thinkers, effective drama requires an intellectual investment in the credibility of the story, the characters and the interaction between them. Intelligent humans need to believe that what is being depicted could actually happen. Unfortunately, the events depicted in Gravity are likely to alienate anyone with an above average IQ. Once one has acknowledged the impressive graphics, any anticipation of emotional investment is quickly dashed to smithereens by the unbelievably vapid and inane dialog. It is painfully obvious that someone with a double-digit scientific IQ appears to have awoken one morning and haphazardly decided to write a "space movie". The physics are off, the events highly improbable. The entire story demands a suspension of belief in reality. Worst of all, the dialog and interaction between the characters is so juvenile that anyone with a brain gets the immediate impression that the project is the product of sophomoric show-biz types who think that the way to move the product is to recycle hackneyed clichés, shiny objects and big explosions. Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is so unprepared and emotionally disabled by adversity that it is impossible to believe that she would have been selected as a mission specialist. Yet, she manages to flit from one space wreck to another and yet another. She consults operation manuals in Russian and, later, Chinese, yet she is heard muttering "eeny meeny miney mo" while haphazardly pushing control buttons like some clueless chimpanzee. The space vehicle's communication equipment fails to pick up "Houston Control", yet, miraculously, is able to receive a bizarre Chinese comedy and howling dogs, which Bullock's character feels compelled to imitate. Clooney's character, Matt Kowalski, is such a clichéd hero that he is depicted as nonchalantly jesting with the hysterical Dr. Stone while he himself is drifting into a desperately life-ending situation. We are expected to believe that, despite having trained intimately together for this mission, these characters address each other by their formal titles and make clichéd announcements back to a non-responsive mission control. Kowalksi has waited until he's drifting to his death to ask where Dr. Stone is from and if she has any kids. Finally, director Cuaron makes a supremely lame attempt at cinematic iconography depicting Bullock floating in a fetal position, a la Kubrick's Space Odessey. And after having had such a bad day and having plunged to Earth in a flaming meteor-like reentry, Stone emerges, unscathed and barefoot mind you, from the ocean onto an idyllic, uninhabited beach like some primal human emerging from the sea. Now, I feel bad about feeling bad about this movie. And I respect Ms. Bullock and Mr. Clooney as actors. However, it is my humble opinion that actors must assume some responsibility for the roles they accept. This movie was so cringe-worthy that the only reason I sat through it was to see how ridiculous it would get. Alas, other than the black hole into whose abyss was irretrievably sucked away any hope I once had for discovering intelligent life in this movie, "Gravity" lacked gravitas.

  2. The big "spoiler" is that this is a big budget Hollywood move with a preposterous plot and lots of special effects. The problem here is that nobody could possible survive through any of this, and the special effects become a substitute for any meaningful plot. Even taken on its own terms, the movie makes no sense. Sandra Bullock has become an astronaut but lacks even the basic skills for that occupation. She tells us she always crash landed the flight simulator, and we find her thumbing through an instruction manual about the size of the instructions for a DVD player to figure out how to safely pilot a space craft back to earth. She even picks the buttons eeny, meany, miney, mo style. Add to this the contrived scenario that she has not only lost a child but also is "revived" and given a reason to live by the now dead George Clooney appearing in a dream sequence. And how great a movie can it really be where there is only one character (and almost no dialog) on camera for most of the film. The special effects are impressive, but what they've obviously done is use computer graphics to create all the weightless effects. As such, things remain weightless even when they shouldn't be, and you eventually become more interested in looking for the screw-ups than watching the movie. Please, please, please. Will someone make a movie with a clever plot that keeps you guessing to the end and with interesting and passably believable characters.

  3. Visually, Gravity is unlike what we have seen on a cinema screen before and arguably it has one of the best uses of 3D in a movie. The setting is spectacular and the premise is inventive.

    On every other front,the movie falters badly. Once you get over the initial wonderment surrounding the beautiful visuals, the chinks start showing up. Overall the script is very weak. Apparently the Russians bomb their own satellite by mistake and the debris is flying around at bullet speed, smashing everything in its way. Now upon hearing an emergency evacuation request, Kowalski (who has been wasting his precious thrusters all this while, floating around, spouting inane dialogs) orders Ryan (Bullock) to disengage from whatever she is repairing. Apparently Ryan has six months of training (only) and fails to be responsive and then the trouble starts.

    We come to know that Ryan has some head issues surrounding the death of her daughter as the writer felt a dire need to give Ryan some sort of existential problem in her head to make her character feel more human. Apart from this minor bit, nothing is presented in terms of character development for any other protagonists. Who is Kowalski? Who are the people who died in their space pods? No idea.

    Then the whole manufactured sense of suspense. Every time Ryan gets anywhere near the Air Lock (she does it three times), the debris presents itself like on cue every single time. Then a fire in a space station, then running out of Oxygen, then something then something. It's fine that they used some standard tricks but it all seems so manufactured and mechanical by the numbers suspense.

    Also at times I couldn't shrug off the feeling that what they are showing on screen is not actually factual. Do the controls on various international space stations have their national languages on them? Really? Maybe they do but seems hard to believe when 20$ phones are built with custom User interfaces with changeable languages, why have your billion dollar space stations with Russian or Chinese characters on your buttons totally beats me. Oh manufactured suspense owing to the whole can't-understand-this-thing machinery.

    The the dialogs when they come are nothing to write home about. Ryan has a hallucinatory moment when she talks to herself following some Mandarin Chatter on the radio which is cringe worthy. I wont even mention the in-your-face allegory about rebirth which is there for to make the movie seem deeper than it is.

    So what works for the movie? It's a cross between an IMAX documentary with some suspense elements thrown it which makes it look path breaking.

    But it's not. Not a bad watch but nothing to rave about either.

  4. When I first saw the billboard for Gravity I got really psyched. Then I saw the names "George Clooney and Sandra Bullock" across the board and my excitement wained. It was only after hearing how the effects carry the movie that I decided to take a chance. My first disappointment, the $15 ticket price for the 3D showing (they have only one non-3D showing a day so there really was no other choice). For $15 I expect one heck of a movie, instead I got a dud. One reviewer said, "The 3D wasn't abused like so many other 3D movies just for the sake of being 3D. No feeling of having to duck when objects are flying at you out of the screen." I disagree, this movie had nothing else going for it, so if i found myself having to duck when an object was hurling toward me, then there would have been at least one redeeming quality and this review probably would have three or four stars.

    Where do I begin? Let's start with the James Cameron quote: 'Gravity' is the best space film ever made." Gravity IS NOT the best space movie every made. It was simply CGI with a lot of cliché. When the shuttle enters the opening scene, it looks like a poorly drawn cartoon – are these the wonderful effects that are supposed to save this movie? Apparently, so. The problem is that the effects weren't all that good. They didn't come close to the realism of "Apollo-13," or "2001 A Space Odyssey," which was made nearly 50-years ago. That leaves us with a lackluster script with no underlying plot or theme. The drab dialog and storyline could have been saved as a sleeper if they used no-name actors instead of Clooney and Bullock hamming up every line. That being said, the movie was boring from beginning to end with no real emotional connection from the audience. In fact, if you want to see a good stuck in space movie, then you should see "Marooned" from 1969, which puts "Gravity" to shame. It's also amazing how the effects and diverse backdrops couldn't save this movie from Sandra Bullock going solo, when Ryan Renolds was able to pull it off in "Buried," which was a low budget movie with a single actor in a single location. It just goes to show that good writing and acting are necessary and special effects alone do not a good movie make.

    Now the fun stuff, let's talk about bad science:

    1) Bullock is nauseous during a space walk. This would never happen. It is only during space walks that space sickness can kill, because vomiting in your enclosed suit would cause you to inhale and choke on the vomit. It is for this reason that food is not consumed for hours prior to an EVA (Extra Vehicular Activity) and astronauts are required to abort the walk when there's even a hint of nausea

    2) Bullock is untethered,spinning and flailing in space. This is highly unlikely. NASA procedure is to always have an emergency MMU called a SAFER during EVA. The pack is programmed to automatically adjust yaw, roll, and pitch to stop the astronaut from spinning. Routine procedure is then to manually take control of the jetpack and use it to return to the space vehicle

    3) The Soyez TMA re-entry module requires an EVA to disengage the chute. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it is my understanding that this model would allow the astronaut to disengage the chute from within the capsule. BTW, if the chute did deploy, it wouldn't have been opened up and spread all over the station. The parachute compartment hatch would have simply been blown off and the parachute would have remained packed away in the module – there is no wind in space

    4) The opening line states that there is no sound in space. However, we hear the wrench actuating when used by Sandra Bullock

    5) George Clooney has Bullock on a long tether to distance her from the jets on his jetpack. However, he's holding on to her in front of himself, where she is just as clear of them as he is. Also, the propellent is inert gas, so it would not have hurt her. BTW, Clooney later drifts into space when there is no discernible force to push him away from Bullock

    6) The re-entry capsules have a hard 60-second count down before undocking. No way. Design of space vehicles offer manual over-rides for nearly everything. If there were a count down, then there would be an over-ride as well

    7) One exploding satellite would not cause a chain reaction of debris. It's called space for a reason, there is a lot of it. Debris from one satellite is highly unlikely to cause further debris

    8) Every satellite and space station is bombarded by the debris as if they are all in the same orbit. They are not. For that matter, neither is the Hubble and ISS

    9) When Bullock takes off her space suit, there is no liquid cooled ventilation unit, catheter, or diaper: which are required attire for EVA

    10) Bullock stabilizes and orients the proper re-entry path of the re-entry module from a spin while well beyond the window for a deorbit burn

    11) No way someone with the emotional baggage of Bullock's character would ever be chosen for a space mission

    12) Bullock went through astronaut training and wasn't taught to brace herself when using a propellent in zero G

    13) The hatch on the Soyez reentry module is much higher and would not have flooded so easily. Additionally, the Soyez, while being designed to land on solid ground, is also designed with floatation devices for water landing and does not have explosive bolts on the hatch. So it would not have flooded like Grissom's Liberty Bell 7

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