Gravity

Gravity with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney has earned a lot of buzz for good reason.

The opening moments of the film firmly establish that the audience is in for a visual treat.  With a production in the hundred million dollars’ realm, this 3D spectacle does make the price of glasses worthwhile.

The space setting is unique, but survivor stories have been around for a long time.  What makes Gravity a record-breaking success where other movies have floundered?

Gravity takes some careful risks balancing character and reality.  George Clooney’s mission commander Matt Kowalski is almost too cavalier and flippant for a position of grave responsibility, while Sandra Bullock’s ironically named Ryan Stone is almost too inexperienced to fit the role.  But while that might not fly in written fiction, it works on screen because director Alfonso Cuaron gives us a pair of characters that we can actually root for.

It is sad that this is something noteworthy, but the quest for gritty realism has been leading directors ever since the sixties to present us with casts of unlikeable people to slowly torture to death on film.  Liam Neeson’s excellently casted and directed The Gray is just one of many examples of that.

Fans of gritty realism have some room to complain about this film.  It struck me that, as the characters drift through space together and get to know one another better, there is no way that their trivial topics of conversation hadn’t been covered in six months of intense team training.  But it worked.  The audience got to know the characters and care about whether they lived or died.

Survival stories are typically very small-cast proposals, and when writing a tale dependent on two or three people, they absolutely must sell.  Clooney and Bullock deliver solid, likeable performances.

This is a work of science fantasy.  Ghosts of my (still living) college physics professor danced through my head as characters calculated orbital trajectories in their heads, stabilized multi-axis spins with nothing but a fire extinguisher while hurtling through space, and caught grips on handle bars despite a velocity differential greater than that of a speeding car…  Engineering spacecraft depends on biometrics, the limits of what the human body can and can’t do.  But by halfway through the movie I had accepted that even though our heroes should be irradiated, delirious, and sporting multiple compound fractures from high speed impacts (even in zero-g kinetic energy, impulse, and momentum are unforgiving companions).  This was a fairy tale in space suits, and it is so well told that I enjoyed it as such.

As I said before, this film sacrifices some of the speculative science “fact” without quite going over the line into incredulity.  It is a gamble that did not pay off for the promising After Earth, where oxygen levels were too low to support an adolescent boy but could fuel life-forms that out-massed him by a factor of five?  Like all gambles, there are great rewards when it pays off.

This is really Sandra Bullock’s movie, and she has always been one of my favorite under-valued actresses.  Like Gina Davis before her she has the ability to project a mixture of strength and vulnerability without crossing the line into unlikeable butch-iness (GI Jane anyone?).  I thought that no mission controller in their right mind would send someone as flighty or insecure into space in the first scene, but as she grew in strength and determination throughout the story I was glad to follow along on her journey from victim in waiting to victorious survivor.

Visual effects, sound design, and musical score were all very well done.  Nothing was overstated, and nothing was conspicuously absent.  I cannot point to any particular moment when I was struck, apart from grand panoramas of God’s creation beneath our stranded astronauts, but like a good orchestra at an opera, without these fine performances the stars wouldn’t have been able to shine nearly so bright.

This is a strongly archetypical story, where a minor character is called to adventure, finds and then loses a mentor, symbolically dies and then returns with untold strength to accomplish their quest.  The formula works because it resonates with the mythology of humanity throughout time.  The film plays strongly on primal human instincts and emotions without delving into the baser human weaknesses and faults (another pitfall many survival stories fall into, because it isn’t a survival story without one rapist, murderer, or drug dealer on the run).

Gravity did remind me that the constant attack on Christianity has reached a point where Hollywood is unlikely to ever again produce a mainstream story that includes our values or an understanding of God’s truths.  A dying character complains that they were never taught to pray, and I believed it wholeheartedly.  The imagined thoughts of an afterlife are only that our friends and loved ones are there, with no mention of why they would be, or how we could ever reach them.  At least there are no open attacks on any segment of the population, religious or not, or attacks on faith itself.  So the movie stands out in that fashion as well.

The fact that our culture has turned a bend away from the Lord does not mean that there is nothing for Christians to gain from this film.  God’s amazing creation is showcased in the visuals.  The love of parents, lost children and friends, and the need for strength beyond our own in crisis should lead even the lukewarm Christians among us to be grateful that we have a source of strength and hope that the characters (and writers) do not know and cannot understand.

In today’s economic times I would recommend Gravity in 3D, so probably a matinee, but the film is worth the price of admission any time.

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