I was so extravagantly impressed by the portrayal of the reality of zero gravity.... The spinning is going to happen — maybe not quite that vigorous — but certainly we've been fortunate that people haven't been in those situations yet. I think it reminds us that there really are hazards in the space business, especially in activities outside the spacecraft.
–Buzz Aldrin, on Gravity

An accident in space sets an engineer and a medical specialist adrift. Against the views of space, billions and billions of stars and the blue expanse of earth and the brilliance of sunrise, they must try to survive.

Options are limited.

All too often in Hollywood, SF gets limited to space opera. Gravity gives us scientifically plausible (if not scientifically perfect) SF, depicting events in space that could happen next Tuesday. Its premise reminds us of just how hazardous real space travel remains; simple mistakes and minor accidents are likely to prove fatal. Hollywood thrillers, meanwhile, all too often involve uninteresting characters and shock-a-moment pacing that numb the viewer. Gravity's plot puts likeable people in a grave situation, and lets the story unfold over ninety minutes of something like real time. The movie observes the classical unities, and these prove more immersive than the 3-D effects. We feel the passing of limited time.

Written SF has handled similar scenarios many times before. One of my first real SF reads was Ray Bradbury's 1949 tale, "Kaliedoscope," which has a superficially similar premise. Motion pictures, however, have avoided hard, near-future SF and the mundane disasters that might befall space travelers. Gravity may not be original for the genre, but it's remarkable for a film, and it finds its own direction, distinct from similar tales.

Two Hollywood heavyweights, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, must carry most of the story's drama. Overall, they prove equal to the task. Bullock, in particular, successfully transforms herself into her atypical character. She trained for six months to get in shape for this demanding role, and it shows. George Clooney remains a little more like, well, George Clooney, though the part requires a certain affable charisma. Perhaps their characters could be further delineated, but the few actors carry ninety minutes admirably. I must say, though, I wonder how this film would have worked with the director's alleged first choices, Angelina Jolie and Robert Downey, Jr.

The backdrops against which the astronauts maneuver prove that digital effects, well done, can serve a story without overwhelming it. No trip to Middle Earth or Pandora has ever looked this spectacular, and the sights Gravity recreates really exist. Although this film differs dramatically from 2001: A Space Odyssey, it occupies a similar place; it establishes a standard for off-world visuals. This film looks like it has been shot in space.

Gravity is not perfect. With everything else the script throws at its protagonists, I found the fire aboard the space station unnecessary and the scene's execution of it a tad far-fetched. And, given the movie's overall scientific accuracy, I'm surprised they had a certain character drift away so rapidly, as though earthbound rules applied at that moment. The filmmakers could have handled this differently and had a similar result. The ending, too, may stretch some viewers' tolerance. The score, meanwhile, ranges from effective to intrusive.

These points do not significantly diminish the effect of the film. We rarely see real SF1 on the big screen, much less SF that borders on real-world, mimetic drama. I hope Gravity takes next year's Hugo, along with its mainstream accolades. The studios need to know that quality films that stray from the summer blockbuster format can repay their investment-- and that science fiction extends far beyond power fantasies and interstellar lens flare.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón

Cast
Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone
George Clooney as Matt Kowalski
Ed Harris as Mission Control
Marvin the Martian as Special Cameo

1. A few readers have asked whether this film should be classified as SF. It's a fine line. It's fiction based on science, and Clooney's character uses a space-walk device that's a little ahead of current tech. YMMV.