Movie review: "Gravity" starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock
“Gravity”: the movie – a review
Of late, I have been finding it more and more difficult to drag myself to the movie halls - discouraged by
the general lack of good movies, and the obscene ticket prices. But I still miss the “big cinema”
experience of my younger days. So when "Gravity" came along with its build-up of rave reviews, I decided
to go. I have been a science-fiction buff all my life, and the clincher was that the movie starred George
Clooney and Sandra Bullock, both of whom are my favourites.
The basic storyline is pretty straightforward. Two American astronauts, Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) and Dr.
Ryan Stone (Bullock) are outside their space shuttle on an EVA (extra vehicular activity) to repair a
malfunction, when they get a sudden warning about space debris heading their way at high velocity.
These are fragments from an exploding Russian satellite, which has been destroyed accidentally by the
Russians themselves. In a matter of a few seconds, a routine space walk turns into a nightmare. The
space shuttle is destroyed by the debris, the other astronauts (including one, sounding very Indian, and
improbably named “Sharrif”) are dead, and Clooney and Bullock find themselves free-floating in space,
tethered to each other, but with no clear means of getting back to earth. Do they make it back safely? The
rest of the movie is devoted to answering this question, and I am not going to play spoilsport by giving the
I saw the movie in 3D, and the special effects are terrific. The haunting beauty of outer space, the feeling
of isolation, the director’s efforts to get the technical details right – all these combine to pitchfork you
straight into the action. The background score is muted and very effective. Alfonso Cuarón, the director, is
to be complimented on pulling off a movie with just two stars – Clooney and Bullock, supported by Ed
Harris as the voice from mission control. Sharp editing and excellent cinematography combine very well
to keep you hooked to the screen right through the 90 minutes duration. On sheer technical values, this
movie is right up there with the best.
Where “Gravity” starts to stumble is when the director tries to flesh out Matt Kowalsky and Dr. Ryan Stone
as multi-layered characters, with their own internal struggles. It is almost as if Cuarón suddenly realized
that sheer technical brilliance and outer-space drama will not make the movie successful, and wanted to
introduce the mandatory “human element”. After all, when your main characters are enclosed in boring
space suits most of the time, making them human and likeable is surely a challenge. Unfortunately, the
director is less sure-footed in this “soft” territory, compared to the technical wizardry he exhibits.
Dr. Stone has lost her infant daughter in an accident in a playground, and this loss continues to haunt her.
She is conflicted about her own existence, and thinks outer space is a good place to be in, because of the
silence. At the same time, weightlessness makes her want to throw up all the time. She is filled with doubt
about her ability to work her way out of the crisis in outer space. All this makes you wonder how she got
past all the stringent psychological evaluations that astronauts are supposed to undergo before they are
chosen for a mission.
Matt Kowalsky is George Clooney at his stereotypical best – the wise-cracking, devil-may-care, “aw,
shucks” veteran wanting to calm the rookie Dr .Ryan down and shepherd her to safety. Very early in the
movie, Matt says, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission”, triggering similar feelings in me
about the movie. Clooney keeps up an endless patter of his stories from the good old days, distracting
Bullock from her urgent tasks. After a while, this mannerism begins to grate, and you wonder why mission
control doesn’t just tell him to shut up and get on with the job at hand. Seniority has its perks, I suppose.
George Clooney is capable of much, much more as an actor. Those of you who saw him in “The
Descendants” - as the attorney who finds out his dying wife has been unfaithful - will know what I mean.
Here in “Gravity”, there is hardly anything to anchor him to the role, and he, well, just floats around –
leaving Bullock to carry the movie on her slender shoulders. To be fair to her, she does a decent job of it,
especially in the second half when she has to portray the transition from shell-shocked helplessness to
While Cuarón has clearly paid great attention to portraying space travel and all the related technical
details accurately, at the risk of nit-picking, I must mention some places where he has either slipped up or
taken liberties in the interest of telling a story. On her return journey, for example, Dr. Ryan Stone “jets”
from one space station to another in a very direct, “point and shoot” manner. I suspect that reality would
be much more complex, involving multiple orbits and a gradual “inch closer and dock” manoeuvre. While
the scenes showing Sandra Bullock making her way weightlessly from one part of the space station to the
other are shot very well, her hair – admittedly short – clings to her head instead of free-floating. Let’s just
assume she is partial to styling gels. After the deadly space debris go past the first time, Kowalsky asks
Dr. Stone to set her watch for 90 minutes, by which time the debris would be back on their next orbit.
While 90 minutes is the typical orbiting time for most satellites, given that the debris are shown flashing
past the shuttle at much greater speed – thereby causing the damage - it would take them much less time
than 90 minutes to come back again.
Clichés abound. Hollywood sticks to its "the Russians are the bumbling baddies" fixation, making them
shoot up (down?) their own satellite. In reality, it was the Chinese who demolished their own satellite in
2007 with a test missile, inadvertently setting off space debris exactly like in this movie; the International
Space Station did have a close brush with the debris subsequently. I wonder if this incident was the
inspiration for “Gravity”.
In another sequence, when Dr. Stone is shown making her way through a Chinese space station, a pingpong bat floats past weightlessly. In the Hollywood world view, Chinese play table tennis, even in space;
Russians presumably play chess and Americans chew gum (which they hopefully dispose of safely).
There will be inevitable comparisons of “Gravity” with Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which
was made in 1968 (yes, 45 years back) based on a story by Arthur C. Clarke. To me, it is a no-contest:
Kubrick’s movie is a clear winner. However, I have no doubt that “Gravity” will win a handful of Academy
awards, and become a worldwide super hit. Go and see it for its technical wizardry and special effects.
Leave your thinking hat behind – which I failed to do. Go with modest expectations, and you will not be
October 21, 2013