Organic life on earth is thought by some to have extraterrestrial origins. Microbes traveled through space, got percolating in the water, evolved over eons and made their way to the land. And that, in a nutshell, is the metaphor driving the incredibly visual chick-flick/SF adventure staring Sandra Bullock, with able assist from George Clooney as the too-good-to-be-real (what else?) mission commander whose advice she learns to follow to the letter. It is George’s puss on the poster to round ‘em up, and bring ‘em in but it is Sandra’s film.
George’s character, Matt Kowalski, is completing his final space mission, Sandra’s character, Ryan Stone, is on her first, ostensibly because of her technical expertise. Matt is knowledgeable, understanding, humorous and good in a crisis. Ryan is dour, proficient in her field, and disinclined to take direction. Both have little in the way of human companionship awaiting them back on earth. Matt’s wife jilted him years ago, and Ryan’s been on automatic since the death of her daughter in a freak accident. The other members of the crew may as well have been played by dummies, as all one sees of them is one fooling around a bit before their untimely demise in the hail of metal debris that envelops the shuttle, and their corpses tumbling like snowflakes amid the wreckage.
The plot, which is as thin as plots get, fits on an index card. In this case, that is no bad thing. The breath-taking visuals of human life in an environment without air, gravity, or crowds—many with the earth just below the action—and Bullock’s character transformation from someone emotionally dead to someone reborn is what the film is all about. It starts with a seamless fourteen minute scene of three astronauts repairing the Hubble telescope (with Stone doing most of the repairing) and ends in catastrophe. Those dastardly Russians have blown up a damaged spy satellite and inadvertently set off a chain reaction of hurtling debris that is taking out other satellites and space stations and wreaking havoc with electronic communications back on Terra Firma. The rest is a tale of survival.
Apart from some dubious explosions as space stations disintegrate, clearly to heighten the drama as Stone learns to rely upon herself in a crisis, and a bit of incredible good luck near the end, the film is believable—at least to someone who knows squat about the realities of space—technically perfect, and engaging. The scene of Ryan’s epiphany is somewhat tenuous, as well, but not so’s the rubes are likely to notice. If there is a major flaw, it is that occasionally the soundtrack fades away—but that, too, is part and parcel of the experience and the metaphor.
If you are inclined to see it at all, see it on the large screen. It will play strictly as melodrama on the small one. And if you have the stomach for it, you might want to consider seeing it in 3D, as this is one of the few films that actually warrant that treatment.
© Paul L. Bates, 2013