Following the lead of a couple very enthusiastic friends, I went today to Alfonso Cuarón's new film Gravity.
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the film tells of a space shuttle mission that runs into difficulties. OK, that's a bit of an understatement. A Russian satellite (if I understand what I just spent two hours watching) explodes and the resulting debris takes a bunch of other satellites out as well, leaving an ever-expanding debris field speeding around the planet in the same orbital plane as our shuttle crew. The debris field is almost a supporting character, a growing blob of malice that passes thru every 90 minutes like a cosmic tornado, shredding everything in its wake and adding the new pieces of jagged shrapnel to itself.
Space stories are an odd lot: either the story has nothing to do with space and simply uses the hostile vastness as a backdrop (like Alien or Star Wars) or the story is space-specific (like Kubrick's 2001). Gravity is the latter. In a story like this, space becomes the starring character; utterly hostile, vast exponentially beyond our comprehension, absolutely cold: it's a realm of almost total nihilistic oblivion where traditional stories are hard to tell and where indigenous dramas are hard for the non-astronaut to understand. Trying to capture the reality of life in space requires educating one's audience about things they very likely do not grasp. Our intuitions do not really apply, and the setting is really foreign to us. How much detail is needed, and how much is too much? Any authentic technical bits are all rather arcane after the basic looming facts are accounted for: quick-freeze temperatures, absolute and instantaneous lack of oxygen, etc. I've read quite a bit about space exploration, and it's hard for we land-lubbers to grasp how difficult it is to do even the simplest physical tasks in a zero-gravity environment. Without gravity to hold us in place, and without the easy footholds that gravity makes possible, the equal-and-opposite reaction to every movement results in people or objects careening around on their tethers. Or just flying off into the impossible void, utterly helpless. We might relate to this difficulty, but we'd need to have it demonstrated for us first.
Cuarón does his level best to do this. And when the characters are literally hanging on by a thread (or not) we begin to see how menacing the yawning abyss is. Our alienation from this setting is absolute; and the vastness pays us no heed whatsoever. Cuarón has fashioned a survival story in this setting, and it's a doozy. There are quite a number of instances in the film where disaster is averted by the very narrowest of margins, literally by a fingerhold. We spend a lot of our time on the perilous edge of our seats. It's thrilling, but a little exhausting.
And yet despite all of this, it's still basically the story of two human beings and their responses to being faced with the most difficult problems imaginable. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney--they're really the only two people in the entire film--are both perfectly cast. I've never been especially a Sandra Bullock fan, but I could become one after this.
A few technical issues strike me. I appreciate the suspicions of Our Man Jeffy, Science Person, who fears the technical liberties would ruin the story for him. And part of the very conundrum of this kind of film is that many of us simply don't know enough to judge it intelligently. Cuarón's task is to tell a story that grabs people across a wide range of technical intuition. I find that some of the criticisms I've read of technical matters seem of no moment to me, and yet other things gnaw at me. But just a little. This is a Hollywood film, after all, and the suspension of at least a bit of reality is needed. But in principle Cuarón tries to keep more than the standard measure of realism in the action. Nonetheless, I did have some questions: why is the debris field moving relative to the position of the shuttle (and of the Hubble Space Telescope, which the mission intends to repair and re-release)? Wouldn't they all be mostly motionless relative to each other? And if not, wouldn't the Hubble be constantly at risk of a collision with those intact Russian satellites whizzing past? I grasp that in reality the Hubble orbit and the International Space Station orbit are likely not the same--and the devices are almost certainly nowhere near each other; and I suspect that these stations cannot simultaneously be in geosynchronous orbits and also at risk of being captured by Earth's atmosphere. That last bit seemed... a bit much. But taken separately, these facts--debris taking out a space ship; having severely limited resources in a space suit and using those resources to get to these tiny islands of safety; etc., etc.--are sound enough to support our story.
Lastly, the setting is absolutely magnetic. The vistas, as I said, are so inconceivably vast, and the Earth from above is impossible to take one's eyes off of. Space is so epically void seen from up there that it makes the Earth seem amazingly... there. It's a perspective that people have dreamt of for as long as there have been people. For many of us, this may be the closest we ever get to seeing our planet from orbit (and on a huge screen and in 3D it's really stunning).
If it's not a perfect film, Cuarón gets the highest marks for ambition. He has done about as well as I think a person could do in telling this story. The time in the theater flew past, and only my emotional exhaustion caused me to breathe a sigh of relief when it was over. The drama is accessible to anyone, but I still think it's a bit "tech-y" and not everyone will warm to the space-ness of it. But for most folks that will be no impediment, and I'm happy to recommend.