By Joan Ellis
Gravity is a spectacle more to be admired than enjoyed.
Writers have been justly lyrical in their descriptions of Alfonso Cuaron’s creation of microgravity. The director and his team spent four years struggling and innovating in a weightless world while artists animated the entire film once and then again after actors were dropped into the picture. How do all kinds of objects – wrenches, bolts, helmets – move in a weightless environment? A simple task like wrenching a bolt on a broken shaft is tedious and demanding. What are the demands of space on people and things?
Creating those demands on earth for filming purposes was an exacting challenge. Sandra Bullock, who plays Dr. Ryan Stone, spent exhausting hours in a “light box” that simulated weightlessness. She applied the skills she had acquired as an athlete and dancer to the slow motions that are the currency of movement in space. Her consistency and grace are admirable.
So where does this leave the audience? Fascinated, certainly, by the visual splendor of watching earth below and the chaos of space at hand. Space, we learn, is full of the debris created by earthlings’ years of exploration. Fragments and wreckage roar in permanent orbit around the earth in serious threat to earthly explorers. Space trash is everlasting.
Ryan (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) have been dropped into this dazzling emptiness by an accident on their routine space mission. The suspense builds for the two – and for us – as we watch them float helplessly while trying to figure out how they might survive. Bullock deserves a salute for mastering both weightlessness and the labored breathing that, along with man-made melodramatic music, is the only sound in the silence of Cuaron’s space.
There is a bit of gentle flirting while Matt tries to steady Ryan’s nerves and a bit of audience smirking when, back on board, Ryan tries to control the ship by reading the instruction manual. Though Bullock coughs, breathes, and moves with appealing grace, the slim story that surrounds her is entirely secondary to the computerized visuals. The story itself is implausible, impossible and fairly unappealing. The liberties taken by the Cuarons – father and son – violate the possible repeatedly in ways that border on being silly.
We need that link to the possible in order to enjoy the movie. Yes, we think, they could be cut loose. While we watch our suddenly irrelevant heroes floating out there, we have plenty of time to wonder what it would feel like to be alone, untethered from the safety of the mother ship in a void without limits, boundaries or help of any kind. There is no 911 helpline in space, no family, no friend. Perhaps that is Alfonso Cuaron’s gift to the audience. He has captured the essence of absolute solitude. He has pulled us into the extraordinary vastness of space and given us plenty of time to realize how terrifying it would be to be there alone.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.