Friday, October 4, 2013

Gravity: Grim survival drama

Gravity (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, disturbing images and fleeting profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 10.4.13

On Jan. 11, 2007, the Chinese military destroyed one of its orbiting satellites with a ground-based missile. Although China insisted that this was the best way to “retire” the aging satellite, visions of a surface-to-space missile race naturally alarmed more than a few nations around the world.

When things go wrong in space, they go very wrong, as Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra
Bullock) quickly discovers. Situations that would be bad enough on the ground, with
gravity operating in one's favor, quickly turn catastrophic in an environment where a
small space suit puncture likely would mean instantaneous death.
Saber-rattling aside, the much more serious issue was the orbiting “debris cloud” of up to 300,000 bits of satellite that resulted, which still could pose serious danger to other satellites or spacecraft en route to the moon and beyond. (NASA, worried about this since 1978, has dubbed the frightening possibility of cascading collisions the Kessler Syndrome.) For this very reason, the U.S. and the Soviet Union halted such anti-satellite experiments in the 1980s.

Clearly, filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón smelled an opportunity. The result, which he directed and co-wrote with his son, Jonás, is Gravity: one of the very few feasible space-based dramas ever released via conventional channels. (I say this to distinguish Cuarón’s film from numerous sci-fi and fantasy entries, or jes’-plain-silly action epics such as Armageddon and Space Cowboys.)

Gravity is both a suspenseful nail-biter and an impressive visual achievement: a studio production that comes close to the on-screen authenticity of an IMAX space documentary. The special effects are stunning, from the gorgeously depicted EVA mission that opens the story, to the weightless activity that takes place within a space station.

When Sandra Bullock “swims” her way from one end of the station to another, passing all sorts of floating debris along the way — not to mention little globules of liquid, or zero-G electrical sparks — everything looks absolutely real. We can’t help a “how the heck did they do that?” sense of wonder, despite our frequent ho-hum reaction to what CGI effects have wrought these days.

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber — and the latter’s company, Framestore — have done stunning work. Indeed, their efforts are almost too good; at times it’s hard to focus on the story, since we’re so frequently dazzled by the on-screen visuals.

But only at times. Cuarón has orchestrated a taut survival drama that masterfully exploits claustrophobic terrors, not to mention related fears of drowning, suffocating or simply being hurled, alone, into the depths of space, able to do nothing but count down the seconds before the oxygen runs out.

The time could be now, or perhaps just a bit into the future, under slightly different circumstances that have allowed our space program to remain robust. A routine shuttle mission commanded by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) includes a civilian passenger: medical engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock), clearly anxious about her surroundings, despite six months of training and preparation back on Earth.

The story begins with the Shuttle Explorer docked alongside the Hubble Telescope, as Stone struggles to install a new scanning system. She’s tense, and not only because of the expanse of space; the scanning unit isn’t cooperating. Kowalski, meanwhile, is punctuating his final voyage into space by scooting around in a test-model jet pack that allows movement unencumbered by the usual tethers.

Kowalski, alert to the rising tension, lightens the mood by joking with Mission Control — we recognize Ed Harris’ off-camera voice (nice touch, that) — and sharing oft-heard personal anecdotes that can’t help raising a smile on Stone’s nervous face.

Then, suddenly, a crisis: On the other side of the planet, an obsolete satellite has just been destroyed by a ground-based missile strike. The resulting debris field, on the same orbital path, arrives much faster than expected; the consequences are catastrophic. To make matters worse, the debris destroys numerous communications satellites along the way, and all contact with Mission Control is lost.

Stone and Kowalski are the sole survivors, and Explorer has been rendered useless. Stone is running critically low on oxygen, and Kowalski’s prototype jet pack has limited fuel. Their only hope: a bit of a “hike” to the nearby International Space Station, just visible to their naked eyes, and the Russian Soyuz capsule that Kowalski knows should be docked alongside.

Right about now, most viewers will be biting lips and digging fingernails painfully into palms.

Such reactions, of course, depend on the degree to which we invest ourselves in this scenario. Cuarón and co-editor Mark Sanger do a masterful job with this, as well. The characters are introduced and sketched just well enough to elicit our concern — the script doing so with “reasonable” conversation, as opposed to dumb dialogue solely for our benefit — and then things happen rapidly enough that we willingly hang on for the ride.

The character contrast is well played and quite credible; Clooney and Bullock deserves plenty of credit, particularly since they do most of their “acting” via vocal inflection and the limited facial expressions that are partially obscured by space suit helmets.

Clooney’s calm voice and easy manner bespeak the seasoned professional that Kowalski obviously is; he’s a well-trained professional who (no doubt) has long anticipated such a crisis, while clearly hoping never to face one. Clooney’s tone is light but instructive, gentle but persistent. Kowalski knows full well that his sole remaining companion is just this side of total panic, which is bad for all sorts of reasons ... starting with the fact that a frightened person breathes more heavily, and wastes more oxygen.

Anticipating this film, I must confess to having had doubts about seeing Bullock as a space scientist; that seemed just as daft as casting Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist, in 1999’s James Bond epic, The World Is Not Enough.

I needn’t have worried; Bullock imbues her character with just the right blend of professional competence and landlubber anxiety. Her terror is reasonable; Kowalski may be comfortable in space, and regard it as his majestic back yard, but Stone has no such sang froid. We can readily believe that she signed on for this mission via a mixture of excitement and pride, for having been selected in the first place. After all, who wouldn't want to experience space first-hand?

So most of us imagine, of course, with the unspoken caveat: As long as nothing goes wrong.

Bullock gives us a character we both respect and fear for; Cuarón’s skill lies in constructing a credible — if horrifying — scenario, and then making Stone the ultimate surrogate for our own resourcefulness. What would we do?

Cuarón has dealt with grim speculative fiction before, specifically with 2006’s apocalyptic and quite unsettling Children of Men. Despite a premise that was extremely unlikely (we hope), Cuarón nonetheless drew quite persuasive performances from his cast. He does the same here.

Lubezki’s gorgeous cinematography is further enhanced by this film’s 3-D effects, which are real enough to induce vertigo or even nausea, particularly when (for example) Stone tumbles out of control, spinning upside-down and sideways, after the initial impact. This film probably should come with air-sickness bags.

Composer Steve Price’s electronic-based score is deeply disturbing, operating on a subconscious level that greatly enhances this story’s fright factor. The sudden crescendos are enough to make you jump out of your skin.

My one major complaint concerns the script’s tendency toward crisis overkill. The eventual plot hiccups represent a single bad-luck day taken to truly ludicrous extremes ... which, in turn, makes this depiction of human endurance a credibility-stretching improbability. Those familiar with the space program and EVAs also likely will balk at the speed with which Kowalski and Stone confront each new problem; every action in a bulky space suit, operating in zero gravity, should take an ... agonizingly ... long ... time. Cuarón pretty much ignores that little detail, no doubt claiming dramatic license (and a need to move things along).

In contrast — and to be fair — the scenario is quite a bit more accurate when it comes to the ghastly consequences of Newton’s laws of motion.

All this said, at a modest 90 minutes, you’re unlikely to be bothered by such issues. Gravity — clever title, by the way — is a thoroughly absorbing drama that’ll make you think twice about booking a ticket on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic.

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