Ever the architect of her relatively luminous career, A-list star and sometime producer, Sandra Bullock, follows her highly successful broad comedy buddy movie, The Heat, with a complete volte-face. Gravity is an intense drama entirely set in space that reminds us just how versatile the Oscar-winning actor truly is. Not that every picture that she’s ever made has been a winner, though for almost every awkward comedy (All About Steve), there’s a matching hit (Miss Congeniality). As funny as the actress can appear on-screen though, she seems to feel more at home in demanding roles that plumb dramatic depths, something that she apparently sometimes finds a hard sell. Bear in mind, Bullock struggled for years to produce a feature based on F.X. Toole’s short story, Million Dollar Baby, but failed to interest the studios in a female boxing drama with her as its star. The story, of course, eventually got made as Clint Eastwood’s acclaimed film in 2004.
Bullock’s natural likability sometimes works against her in edgy dramas (Murder By Numbers), but not here. The narrowly focused plot of Gravity demands that we invest in the survival of an inexperienced astronaut when she faces the ultimate terror: being set adrift in space. In Gravity, Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist and newbie who’s sent up to the space shuttle with a couple of seasoned astronauts, Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Shariff (Paul Sharma), to fix a technical problem outside the ship. When a wave of debris starts pelting the trio during their spacewalk, the mission is irrevocably compromised. Following this nerve-racking sequence, the story becomes distilled into one of pure survival. Director, Alfonso Cuarón, who co-wrote the screenplay with his son, Jonas, expertly charts the emotional passage of the story with a sure hand and elegant economy. Not one single emotional beat or visual moment feels false. Everything about Gravity appears expertly crafted by Cuarón, and superbly realised by his star.
There’s a moment reminiscent of the campy sixties sci-fi flick, Barbarella (as well as a nod to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien), where Bullock, finding short-lived refuge in another nation’s abandoned spacecraft, steps out of her space suit. Sure, she’s wearing underwear and she looks great, but it manages to feel like a natural scene without any pervy camera angle lingering too long. Cuarón avoids a salacious gaze, and somehow presents a scene that is honest as well as appealing.
Clooney features in a small supporting role, his cocky persona a nice foil to Bullock’s no-nonsense, closed-door scientist. Some efforts on his part to draw her out with random, time-killing chit-chat disclose that our protagonist is burdened with a tragic backstory that is never dwelt on nor explored, but gently informs the real-time storyline when necessary. In what is practically a solo performance, Cuarón keeps our attention on Bullock’s character’s struggles against an ever-replenished banquet of adversity, her slippery grasp on control in the face of pure panic and isolation slowly slipping away, and her determination threatened by a growing sense of hopelessness. It’s a masterful performance.
With a decent production budget of $80 million and filmed digitally, the movie employs state-of-the-art visual effects to simulate the slow-moving experience of working in zero-gravity conditions. The conversion to 3-D in post-production is well-rendered and used to great effect during the most action-packed scenes, immersing us in the film’s terrifying, white-knuckle sequences. These dazzling visuals within an exquisitely gorgeous picture would feel empty were it not for the emotions driving the story. Bullock makes that aspect appear effortless.
Gravity is now showing in IMAX, 3-D in cinemas in LA.
This review first appeared in Filmink magazine.