The story (spoilers ahead)
Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a technical specialist on board the space shuttle Explorer on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. During a stomach-churning space-walk, Houston alerts the crew of Explorer that a Russian effort to decommission a spy satellite has gone sour, sending debris hurtling around Earth’s circumference at twenty times the speed of sound. A chain reaction results, carving a path of destruction through hundreds of other satellites and swelling the deadly debris field. The crew of the Explorer aborts its mission seconds too late as the shrapnel slams into their spacecraft, killing all but Stone and her comrade, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)—both of whom find themselves careening through space in nothing but their suits. With limited oxygen supplies, the two attempt to reach the International Space Station, which, upon their arrival, reveals dangers of its own. Stone and Kowalski become separated, and an on-board fire forces Stone to flee in a cramped, damaged escape pod.
In a desperate bid to reach the one vehicle still capable of returning her to Earth, Dr. Stone strikes out for a derelict Chinese space station. Summoning the courage to fight instead of surrender, she hitches a ride on the plummeting vessel as it reenters earth’s atmosphere and miraculously survives to plant her feet again on solid ground.
I recall nights past when I would walk into the dark field near my parents’ rural home and gaze up at the stars. On one such occasion, I played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on my iPod. For me, few things have ever captured the haunting beauty of deep heaven like that piece of music. This film was one.
Acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón does a spookily excellent job of capturing the true meaning of space: no dimensions like “up,” or “down,” no time as humans measure it, no night or day, no air, no life, and no gravity—at least until you get a little too close to the Earth. The entire film scintillates with celestial majesty and peril as the camera weightlessly circumnavigates each scene, capturing, from every conceivable angle, gut-reeling vistas of our azure planet, and flinging us, disoriented, into panoramas of deep space.
Unlike in so many recent films, the CGI shines without overreaching and the characters capture audiences’ emotions with elegantly little exposition or backstory. Old pros Bullock and Clooney run the show with little more than faces seen through space helmets at their disposal, and the film’s ability to slip us into the characters’ bulky suits to experience their terror, vertigo, and suffocating brushes with death surpasses nearly everything else I’ve seen. “Gravity” is intense enough without the full IMAX format.
And oddly for a story set in a vacuum, the sound—particularly the poignant and often tear-jerking radio dialogue—shines just as brightly as the visuals.
I haven’t yet seen anyone compare “Gravity” with M. Night Shayamalan’s 2002 thriller “Signs.” That strikes me as odd, because the two films tell a virtually identical fable. In both, a protagonist (Sandra Bullock and Mel Gibson respectively), embittered and disillusioned by the accidental death of a loved one, dismisses the existence of God on that basis, waiting for the hammer of dumb fate to fall again. In both, the characters face a threat of astronomical proportions (and origin), which forces them to either give up or fight tooth-and-nail to survive. Both characters find themselves re-learning prayer in the midst of their danger, scraping by through unthinkable odds, and ultimately regaining their faith and thanking a Power whom they believe intervened on their behalf.
For Dr. Stone, a character whose heart has drifted in the recesses of space since her daughter’s freak accident, the cold and darkness hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface offers nothing too alien. This movie tells the story of her return to Earth not only physically, but spiritually.
All of us, when struggling to cope with unbearable grief and anger with God, may face a similar journey back from our self-imposed exiles in the vacuum. But perhaps unlike Bullock’s character in “Gravity,” who alternately fixes her hope on an Orthodox icon of Jesus in a Russian spacecraft and a grinning Buddha in the Chinese landing module, we know of a Power in whom we can rejoice more than Dr. Stone rejoices in Earth’s muddy surface upon her miraculous landing. The Heavens proclaim His glory—and so does this movie, as if through a glass (or a space helmet), darkly.
Image copyright Warner Bros. "Gravity" is rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images, and brief strong language.
G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.