By John H. Foote
“Everybody dies … but I’m going to die today – Ryan (Sandra Bullock) in Gravity
Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for her fine performance in the otherwise predictable and sappy The Blind Side (2009) which has never sat well with me. Had she not won for that film, she very likely might have won for her brilliant performance in Gravity, which is nearly a one woman show. She captures the anguish, terror, longing and hunger to live that must surge through a person facing likely death. If Cate Blanchett had not given her career best performance in Blue Jasmine (2013), that Best Actress Oscar would have belonged to Bullock and this time she would have deserved it. She is nothing less than astonishing throughout the film.
Alfonso Cuaron directed Gravity, based on a screenplay written by him and his son, and it is a masterful piece of work, combining stunning visual effects, grand vistas of space, while exploring the dangers around every corner of space travel. Yet even more it is a very intimate study of a woman who had given up on life when she lost her child, finding within her the will to survive, to carry on despite terrible personal loss. Faced with almost certain death, she realizes more than anything she wants to live, as much for herself as her daughter, and uses everything she knows to make that happen. Beyond the superlative work from Bullock, director Cuaron serves up some of the most striking images ever put on the screen about rebirth and evolution, and we watch transfixed as Bullock goes through that evolution, reborn again as a survivor, evolving as a human being through her actions.
When a Russian missile strikes a disabled missile in space, a cloud of debris sweeps through the heavens, destroying everything in its path. The Space Shuttle Explorer, doing routine maintenance on the Hubble telescope, is directly in the path of the oncoming debris and, though they try to get back into their craft and head back to earth, the objects silently strike, leaving them stranded in space. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) survive as the others are killed, leaving themselves open to danger unless they can get to safety. They make their way through space to the International Space Station (ISS) hopping to find a way to get home, but they find the ISS deserted and much of it destroyed. Their only hope is the Chinese station Tiangong, about 60 miles away from them. When their cords become entangled, their oxygen depleted, Matt frees himself from the entanglement, knowing certain death awaits him, but he believes Ryan can survive.
She tries everything known to her to get to the Chinese station but realizes there is no hope, so she shuts down the Suyuz and prepares to die. In a hallucination comes Matt, who guides her through what should save her, and she awakens with newfound hope. Talking out loud she tells Matt to find her daughter in the afterlife and tell her Mama loves her and is so proud of her. She then makes her way through space with a fire extinguisher, making it to the Chinese station where she rigs a pod to punch through the atmosphere and hope to get back to earth. She understands her chances are less than half, but she feels she must try.
We watch as the craft plunges through the atmosphere, sustaining severe damage, aflame causing intense heat inside the capsule, finally landing in a lake. Taking off her helmet, she blows the door to the capsule but cannot get past the rushing water. Patiently holding her breath, she waits for the capsule to sink to the bottom of the lake and then swims to the surface, exploding out of the water and inhaling the earth’s air deeply, like a child born. Swimming to the shore, she crawls onto the muddy land and allows her face to rest in it, smiling, digging her hands into the earth. Then she pulls herself to her feet and takes a step, grounded to the earth by gravity, she is home.
Bullock, to be clear, is astounding in the film, giving the absolute finest performance of her career. Like Tom Hanks in Cast Away (2000) she dominates the film, appearing in every single scene, and gives the film its beating heart and soul. She does not offer a false note in her splendid performance which, given the countless visual effects, was demanding to shoot. Several actresses were attached to the film before Bullock, some even doing tests for the film, including Blake Lively, Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, and Olivia Wilde, though it was Bullock who nabbed the plum role. She turned out to be perfection, bringing to the character the anguish of losing a child, the desperation of being alone in space with even contact to earth impossible, and finally that plucky survivor resilience that we all find when faced with certain doom. It truly is a stunning performance. I love the choke she places on her last word in the famous line “I’m gonna die today” as it suggests volumes about her and her desire to live. And she finds humour within the character as well, speaking to no one, she says, “I hate space” and we understand exactly what she means.
The key theme of the film is survival and the startling resilience of the human spirit and mind when so motivated. The film concludes with an allegory about the dawn of mankind, as Ryan emerges from the depths of the water to crawl onto land and then pull herself upright. The planting of her foot in the sand, is among the most moving images in the film. An earlier shot shows her safe in the womb of the spacecraft, her space suit off, cables around her resembling the umbilical cord, attaching her to life. It is quite extraordinary.
Cuaron captured the vastness of space as beautifully as Kubrick did in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), showing just how small we really are in the massive universe surrounding us. Earth hangs in the distance like a bright blue orb, still but nearly pulsating with the life force that beats within Ryan, the pull towards home ingrained into her DNA. His choice to show the destruction without sound as there would be none, space being devoid of air, on which sound travels, was brilliant as it shows the destruction around the astronauts and their reactions to it. We do not need the sound of explosions to know of the destruction, we see it, we feel it through the actors. If there is a false choice he makes in the film, I am not aware of it.
Gravity was widely praised by critics and nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning seven including Best Director for Cuaron, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score, Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Sound Editing. Like Cabaret (1972), it led the night in wins but did not take the top prize, Best Picture, which went to 12 Years a Slave (2013). Though I admire the film immensely, and I am a fan of the work of Cuaron, the best film for me in 2013 was Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, which also should have won Best Director.
Gravity thrilled audiences, a massive hot at the box office, embraced by film critics, it was and remains, one hell of a ride.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.