A group of kids from Maui were sent to Space Camp in 1989, where they spent a week at the training facility in Huntsville Alabama, learning how to operate spacecraft. I was one of those kids. It was a pivotal event in my young life, as I seriously wanted, at the time, to become an astronaut.
I flew to the Mainland with a group of Maui pre-teens, though I was the only representative from Makawao Elementary School. After a week of classes, simulators, flight shuttle reenactments and dehydrated “space food,” I discovered that, while I had no problem being in an airplane, the thought of being in the vacuum of space gave me intense feelings of vertigo. So ended my dream of being the next Neil Armstrong.
But during my time at Space Camp, I don’t recall ever being told about the incredible dangers inherent in space travel. Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, his second film after the extraordinary Children of Men, is all about the dangers of life in outer space, which, the title card tells us, is “impossible.”
The enormous planet Earth is the first thing we see, an incredible image of size and might that fills the screen. As it’s in the vacuum of space, there is no sound. Slowly, the tiny figments on the side of the screen draw closer, and we gradually realize we’re looking at an astronaut on a “space walk.”
We hear a distant voice growing louder as he floats closer to us. We recognize it immediately–it’s George Clooney. He’s outside his spacecraft, working on a mission along with two other astronauts. Playing the astronaut he’s speaking to is Sandra Bullock, portraying a soft spoken scientist who uses time in space as an escape from the horrors she left on Earth.
More of this comes up later. At the moment, the film is allowing us to overhear their conversation as they go about their most unusual line of work. As the camera floats nonchalantly around them, filming them for a seemingly endless take, I had to remind myself that Clooney and Bullock have never been to outer space.
The special effects made me forget, almost immediately, that the actors filmed these scenes with techniques ranging from wire work to elaborate CGI. Yet, it’s so seamless and appears so real, with brilliant uses of sound to compliment the illusion, I gave up early on trying to figure out how they pulled it off and just decided to believe I was watching the real thing.
Clooney’s movie star charisma makes him a good fit for his role, but Bullock has rarely been better. She gives a tour de force performance and doesn’t allow the effects to overshadow her, which couldn’t have been easy.
The story is much more than Clooney and Bullock’s characters floating in zero gravity but saying anything beyond the obvious minimum, that this is a survivor story, would be spoiling it. Gravity offers its audience an experience they’ve never had before.
The reportedly long post-production (this was filmed two years ago) has resulted in a film of visual miracles that dwarfs even Avatar. The dialogue isn’t on the same level and the story has a conventional quality, though the way it’s told makes for a riveting journey.
It’s closer to 127 Hours than Apollo 13, emphasizing survival while death inches closer at every second. Designed to appear composed of only a few scenes, consisting of long, continuous takes, the cinematography puts you into space in a way I haven’t experienced before. Not even at Space Camp.
Rated PG-13 / 90 Min.