Scientist Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer, is on her first space mission, aboard the Space Shuttle Explorer, with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, on his final trip into space. During a spacewalk to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and fellow technician Shariff Dasari, Mission Control in Houston warns them of incoming space debris, wreckage of a Russian attempt to shoot down one of their own obsolete satellites. Mission Control orders that the mission be aborted immediately and shortly after all communications with Houston are lost. A cloud of high-speed debris strikes the shuttle, detaching Stone from the shuttle, sending her tumbling, uncontrolled, through space. Kowalski manages to recover Stone and, tethered together, they make their way back to the shuttle but discover that the craft has suffered catastrophic damage and the rest of the crew are all dead. Kowalski estimates they have ninety minutes before the debris cloud completes an orbit of the Earth and hits them again, and uses his thruster pack to the ISS, the International Space Station, which is some 900m away. As they float, Kowalski trying to conserve the propellent in his pack, he asks Stone, still disoriented and starting to run low on oxygen, about her life on Earth, trying to keep her calm, and finding that since the death of her four-year old daughter she has completely devoted herself to her work. When they reach the severely damaged but still operational ISS, they find the crew has evacuated in one of its two Soyuz modules, the remaining one having already had its’ parachute accidentally released, meaning it cannot be used to return to Earth. Kowalski suggests they use the Soyuz used to travel to the nearby vacant Chinese Space Station, the Tiangong, some 160km away, and use one of its modules to return safely to Earth. Trying to grab onto the ISS as they pass by, Kowalski being out of propellent, they miss, failing to get a handhold, but Stone’s leg gets caught in the trailing cords of the parachute, and he manages to grab hold of Kowalski’s tether, but Kowalski realises holding onto him is jeopardising her, since the parachute cords will not take the strain of both of them. He detaches the tether and floats away, radioing her additional instructions and encouragement. As he starts to drift further and further away she clambers into the ISS through an airlock. After seeing the damage caused within, and making sure the remaining Soyuz capsule is operational, she plans to utilise it to go after Kowalski and rescue him. As Stone detaches the capsule and moves it away from the ISS, the tangled parachute cords prevent it from separating from the station, causing her to have to put on her spacesuit once again and embark on a spacewalk to release the cables, managing to get back to the capsule just as the debris cloud completes its orbit, Stone detaching the Soyuz from the rapidly disintegrating ISS, which is destroyed by the storm of flying metal, but as she watches the wreckage of the ISS break up and float away, she suddenly realises that the Soyez capsule is unfuelled, and she is completely alone and marooned in space.
A virtual two-hander, the two being Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, a very small cast for a sci-fi pic budgeted at $100m / £61m, Gravity
proved to be one of the box-office surprises of the end of 2013, being a very intelligent drama / thriller, which manages to mesh an astounding level of technical genius with two fine performances, the third character not getting so much as a close up before being taken out by the deadly cloud of debris which sets the script, by director Alfonso Cuarón (Y Tu Mama Tambien / Children Of Men
) and his son Jonas, the introductory shot, an incredible twelve and a half-minute shot by DoP Emmanuel Lubezki (Sleepy Hollow / The Tree Of Life
), rendered seemingly seamless by digital edits, immediately placing the audience in the very middle of the action as the camera seems to float in and around the Hubble telescope as the three work on it, a shot which brilliantly establishes several elements, the sheer vastness of space, the vulnerability of the characters within it, and the fact that in zero gravity there is no up or down or side to side, just a weightlessness which can be either gentle and calming or, in different circumstances, terrifying and panic-inducing. The deceptively simple plot has Bullock as the improbably named Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, being commanded by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) on his last flight before retirement, but while the pair are on a routine spacewalk, the purpose being to repair the Hubble telescope, the shuttle is destroyed when hit by a cloud of space debris, leaving Stone and Kowalski completely alone, tethered to each other and spiralling out into the blackness. They have lost any radio link to Earth, Mission Control being voiced by an unseen Ed Harris, much the same role as he played in Apollo 13
, and with it any chance for rescue. As their oxygen runs down, the pair realise they have just one chance, to try to propel themselves across space towards the orbiting ISS, but of course that option is quickly eliminated when it is found the ISS has also been severely damaged by the debris, causing Kowalski to come up with their only other escape plan, to use the remaining Soyuz capsule to get back to earth, but it is from here that Curaón introduces some clever and audacious twists, at least one of which it would be unfair to reveal here, but as well as the vastness of space, made all the more deadly by this orbiting swarm of sharp space debris, which as we are told is travelling at the speed of rifle bullets, there is also the human element, the drive to survive against all costs, which results in one particular scene which in other hands could have been made incredibly sentimental, but is handled extremely well by the Mexican helmer and does indeed give a character the desire needed to get back to Earth. While Clooney is in a role which is largely making jokes at his own expense, Kowalski being a wisecracker with a knowing, self-deprecating vain streak, it is Bullock who has to do most of the heavy lifting, and gives a fine performance, he character almost from the very first frames of the film, being harassed, under stress and pressure, and the struggle in the later scenes, trying to balance her urge to live with the sheer crushing sense of inevitability is movingly portrayed, As well as being a fine showcase for the leads, and both Robert Downey Jr and Natalie Portman, who were attached but eventually turn down the roles, must be kicking themselves now, but Gravity
is also a work of particular technical genius also, as discussed in far more details in a number of film and technical magazines after the film was nominated for ten Oscars including Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects, the film being shot at Shepperton Studios and with the London digital effects house Framestore providing all the digital elements apart from seventeen shots, the estimate being 80% of the film being digital SFX, beating James Cameron’s Avatar
which was estimated at 60%, but Gravity is by far the more impressive of the two visually since the elements are so seemlessly and carefully integrated, and have to convince an audience which has a knowledge of space missions and genuine constructions such as the ISS, unlike a fantasy world with imaginary aliens, A truly remarkable piece of work, praiseworthy in every department, Gravity
is an extraordinary achievement, a truly high-tech sci-fi film in which the drama and the technical wizardry complement each other perfectly, resulting in a tense, gripping film with ratcheting tension and a true escalating feeling of dread, as well as a true ability to surprise and amaze. Truly excellent.