Reviewed by Galen Strickland
I will have to review this film in two different ways, one positive, one negative.
I will give this one a recommendation, although I won't praise it as much as others have been doing, and my recommendation is only for the production values and Bullock's performance. I did see the 3D presentation because the majority of show times available were for that version, plus someone else bought my ticket this time. I have read comments from director Cuarón that the majority of today's 3D films are "crap," mainly because most are converted to the format after principal photography is complete. He and his crew designed the film specifically for 3D, and while an IMAX presentation is likely even more impressive, I feel that with the excellent cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki (who also worked with Cuarón on Children of Men), even the 2D version would be acceptable. Meticulous attention to detail concerning the ease (and sometimes the awkwardness) of movement in zero gravity, as well as remarkably accurate sets of a shuttle, the ISS, a Soyuz spacecraft, and even the proposed Chinese Tiangong space station, give the viewer a very realistic experience of what it must be like to work in space.
Sandra Bullock does an excellent job with the physically demanding tasks her character faces. Cuarón has said she spent at least six months in training and preperation for the film, the same amount of time her character supposedly trained at NASA. She plays Ryan Stone, a mission specialist, alongside veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney). They are installing a new device on the Hubble Space Telescope when word comes from Houston that the Russians have destroyed one of their satellites and debris could possibly endanger the shuttle crew. Even before they are able to complete their mission and return to the shuttle, Houston warns them that another satellite has been hit and the debris field has grown. When the debris hits the shuttle, only Stone and Kowalski survive. Crews on the ISS and Tiangong stations are evacuated to Earth, and the two Americans must try to reach the ISS before their oxygen supply is depleted and before the debris field re-orbits to endanger them again. Other than Bullock's performance, the strength of this film is purely visual, and I cannot think of one thing to criticize on that front.
However, I must now put on my negative hat and detail the things I did not like. Please note, these comments are from a long-time fan of both science fiction and of the space program. While suspension of disbelief is necessary in almost any film, SF or otherwise, sometimes I refuse to do that when it seems the intent of a film is the exact opposite of what I think it should be. You may have already read the opinion of astronaut Buzz Aldrin in an article for the Hollywood Reporter. I hate to contradict a true American hero, but I think this film came at the wrong time for our society and our perception of where we should be going in regards to space exploration. Gravity is a depiction of a strong survival sense, an examination of what intelligence and determination can accomplish when life presents you with the worst possible scenario. I realize the plot points that were necessary to tell the story of one characters' reaffirmation of life, a rebirth if you will, but I think they went too far and could have accomplished the same thing without an affront to my intelligence.
It is true that the majority of satellites are in Low Earth Orbit, but that varies from about 100 miles to as much as 1200 miles above the Earth's surface. Very few satellites, if any, are in the same orbital plane. The Hubble Space Telescope is currently at an altitude of approximately 347 miles, in a near circular, equatorial orbit. The ISS orbit is eliptical and at a inclination of about 51 degrees to the equator, and at an average altitude of around 260 miles. The current Tiangong-1 module orbits 220 miles above the Earth's surface, also in an eliptical orbit but with an inclination of only 43 degrees. This film wants you to believe all three are not only in the same orbital plane, but that debris from other satellites, also in the same plane, will not retain the same relative speed and orbit that satellite was in, but rather race around that orbit at a much higher velocity and wreak havoc on other bodies. Yes, space debris is becoming a problem we need to face and counteract, but the tragedy this film depicts could have come from just one single bit of debris in the wrong place and the wrong time to cripple the shuttle and kill the crew still aboard. It was not necessary to destroy not only the shuttle, but also the HST, the ISS and the Tiangong station. Both of those stations have been unmanned at various times and that could have been the case in this instance too. Everything that Stone has to go through could have occurred without all the collateral damage. Her character arc could still have been as poignant and cathartic.
Why Aldrin thinks this film is in any way a positive thing for our space program I can't guess. While it does affirm the fact that he and all of his fellow astronauts were heroic pioneers who put their lives on the line for the advancement of science, I got the distinct impression that both Ryan Stone and Alfonso Cuarón are saying it is best to leave space behind and return home to Earth. One comment from Kowalski reflects what I think is the opinion of most people, that the space program is too expensive and a waste of our time and resources. I obviously disagree, but worry that Gravity will reaffirm that opinion for most everyone else. I can't help but think of something David Brin said during a space program panel at the most recent Worldcon. The Chinese desperately want to be at the forefront of space exploration. While cooperation of all the world is the ideal thing to work towards, as long as they keep their program to themselves we must keep up the same pace if not exceed their efforts. We don't need anything that might negatively effect those efforts.
Go see it for the visual splendor and the gripping character drama. It is an exceptionally well made film. My scientific nit-picking should not discourage anyone else from giving it a chance. Just don't forget it's just a movie and doesn't matter in the long run, which is what I am having difficulty keeping in mind.
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