The movie is called “Gravity,” but a more appropriate title would be “Debris.” While there is not much gravity involved, there are plenty of objects, some floating around harmlessly like pens, notebooks, water bubbles and a Marvin the Martian doll, and others much more perilous, like satellite parts turned into shrapnel, zooming in a destructive orbit around Earth.
With a minimal cast in the budget, it is apparent that most of the funds allotted to “Gravity” went into the stunning visual effects. With the Earth serving as a gorgeous backdrop, this intense thriller captures the beauty — and the deadly allure — of outer space.
Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are the main stars in the movie, with other characters relegated to very minor roles — some unseen, such as Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control. Outer space is the setting for about 99 percent of “Gravity.”
Writer-director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien”), collaborating on the script with son Jonas, dispenses with any character-developing prelude and moves right into the story. “Gravity” opens with a spectacular shot of the Earth that pans slowly to the left, and gradually radio communications, faint at first, become more clear, and the camera closes in on the scene of the action — a Space Shuttle parked at a satellite, where work is being done.
Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a medical engineer busy installing some hardware she designed that might enhance Hubble signals — and also may have some breakthrough uses on Earth. Unfortunately, she is not having success in getting the machinery in operating order.
Astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney), meanwhile, appears to be having a good time buzzing around the scene, using his jet pack to propel him around on a spacewalk. He finally settles down and pauses to assist Ryan. Suddenly, Mission Control issues an urgent transmission, warning that a Russian missile has blown up a satellite, creating a fast-moving debris field that now is blowing through other satellites, destroying them, growing in size, and barreling around the planet in a vast, deadly orbit.
So, the mission must now be aborted. Time is running out for the astronauts to pack up their gear, return to the shuttle and get away before the debris field swarms them.
Things go very wrong very fast, leaving Dr. Stone and Kowalski in a dire challenge for survival. The experiences of Stone and Kowalski tap into primal fears. Much like floating adrift in the ocean, not knowing what lurks in the water below you, the prospect of drifting off into space is a real in-the-gut terror.
Clooney’s Kowalski is the epitome of the “right stuff” test pilot/astronaut. He maintains an even strain. “Houston, we have a problem” is never uttered by Kowalski, but in the midst of all this danger, his voice is calm. He is witty in the face of death, and as he tells Stone what they need to do, he adds with a tranquil by-the-way tone that this effort most likely will not guarantee survival.
Bullock adeptly captures the essence of an intelligent person battling natural urges to panic, struggling to gain control of herself and think clearly. At times she is resigned to accept death, then revived by glimmers of hope.
The Cuarons wisely keep the story uncomplicated, focusing on the natural will to live and horrifying prospects of isolation. With a running time of only 90 minutes, it feels taut and never lets up on the spine-tingling dread.