Warning: *This review contains a spoiler.*
I am compelled to start this review with a little lecture on genre. Whenever a movie like Apollo 13 or Gravity comes out, there are philistines who claim that such movies are not science fiction. Because they deal with existing and not make-believe technology. We all have our own ideas of what constitutes a genre, and my view is simple: all fiction involving science, technology and/or a scientific attitude is science fiction. If that strictly speaking makes a lot of crime fiction and forensics shows science fiction, that’s perfectly fine by me. Arguably, that means there is such a thing as “high science fiction” which is about scientific (and everything related to such) speculation, whether in terms of technology or plot. High science fiction will typically take place in the future, involving technology that hasn’t been invented yet. Gravity, by this reckoning, is low science fiction, but by my firm conviction certainly still science fiction. If anybody doubts this, the clincher is to google “holes in Gravity”, and you will see that a bunch of “scientific facts” in the movie – you know, “little things” such as the location and trajectories of satellites and the accessibility of the International Space Station – are indeed highly fictional, altered to serve the plot, just like in your average science fiction movie, or, come to that, pretty much any movie. So, yeah, Gravity is science fiction, and don’t let anybody tell you differently.
Gravity is also a great movie. I was excited to see which effect it had on me, because, being a complete science and sci-fi aficionado (and someone who always wanted to be an astronaut), the entire premise of floating in orbit has always filled me with supreme wonder. In fact, it has always been the case that, if I could choose the manner of my own death, I would most want to die while gazing down at the Earth from orbit. So, a movie in which that is pretty much what happens (though not quite) is supposed to terrify me? Not likely! However, what makes the conceit work is that the movie doesn’t just expect the average viewer to find this situation terrifying. No, it specifically gets us into the head of a particular character who finds it terrifying. And so we empathise with her, feeling her feelings, rather than our own in a similar situation. Great. It worked. Kudos to the writer and director.
The story: Actually, it’s kind of hard to explain who Sandra Bullock is playing (a medical doctor/engineer?) and why she had to get into space (since she would clearly prefer not to be there), and the beginning of the movie really just skims over these details. So we don’t actually have a strong set-up premise. But all right – it serves the plot well: Bullock’s character, Ryan Stone, is established as a fish-out-of-water in order to raise the stakes for her when things start to go wrong and she has only had rudimentary training.
And things go wrong after just a few minutes. Space debris hits the spaceshuttle and one astronaut is instantly killed. That leaves just Bullock and Clooney, and Clooney isn’t in the picture for long. Incidentally, Clooney’s letting go of Bullock was perhaps the main scientific gripe I had with the movie. They seem to have come to a halt, but he’s claiming that he’s still dragging her away and has to let go in order to stop Bullock’s momentum? Doesn’t seem right at all (holding on to each other, they’d be sharing the same momentum, wouldn’t they?). But anyway. Bullock ends up having to navigate near-Earth space by her lonesome, amid enormities of distance and debris, trying to get to first the International Space Station and then a Chinese space station in order to try and find a working emergency re-entry vehicle. Things nearly go very wrong many times, but, she successfully tumbles down through the atmosphere with insane luck. And it all looks absolutely amazing.
I also have to mention the end scene, because I think it may be the greatest scene in the movie. It’s what made me leave the theatre with that great surge of emotion that every great movie should provide the viewer with. Bullock, exhausted, is crawling ashore at an unknown location suffused with stark natural beauty. She is tempted to lie down and rest, but her body language clearly says, “Oh no, I’ve come this far. I’m not giving up now!” So she stands up, and we see her from the ground, looking up at a proud and heroic human figure (and a woman, for once) who stands erect, having triumphed over the worst the universe could throw at her. Humanity: 1. The universe: nil. The music wells up as she starts walking towards the mountains – the unquenchable human spirit competing with them as to who are more majestic. That is a fabulous ending. Gorgeous.
Overall, it is a great movie, but it has flaws. The opening premise remains ad hoc for the plot. Some scientific bits are too fictionalised. The news we hear about some major planet-wide communications break-down on Earth are too incredible to believe, esp. seeing as most communication satellites are in geo-stationary orbit, far farther out than the spaceshuttle and space stations go. Also, the basic story is too simple to have a sufficiently gratifying rewatch value. It’s a great movie, but for now I’m not quite going to call it a perfect 10. Almost, but not quite. That could change, but for now I’m still championing Elysium (which I’ve upped from 9 to 10 stars since first reviewing it) as the year’s best science fiction movie, and waiting with bated breath for Ender’s Game, which rolls around in less than two weeks.
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris (voice), and others.
Runtime: 91 min.