Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Force of Gravity

Sandra Bullock is my new favorite actress.

Two of her recent films, The Heat and Gravity, moved me deeply. One to raucous laughter, the other to tears of self-recognition.

These films show the scope of her range. She can be the uptight, straight man, the perfect foil for Melissa McCarthy’s in-your-face, share-every-single-thing-that’s-on-your-mind bravado, as she was in The Heat. And she was hilarious. She can also be the earnest scientist, a fish out of water, who just wants to finish her job and get back home to earth when tragedy strikes, as in Gravity.

My expectations for Gravity were different than my actual experience of the film, and I mean that in the best possible way. I was expecting a colder, more detached film, (It’s in space, of course you’ll feel cold and detached) a film more like 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I found epic and engrossing, but emotionally distant. Based on the trailer I also thought it would be a more straightforward drama/thriller/disaster film. We know right away that Sandra Bullock gets separated from the space station. We feel the claustrophobia and anxiety as she hurtles away from the only other humans nearby for thousands of miles.

What I didn’t expect from the film was the beauty, and the emotional journey of Sandra’s Ryan Stone.

There is beauty because of the newness and wonder of feeling like I too, was floating above the earth, gazing at its placid, blue and white swirled surface along with the astronauts. I’ve read that often when astronauts first journey into space, they are overcome with emotion, seeing the earth this way. This blue ball, so fragile and far away takes on new meaning. Seeing the world, our world, from the “God’s eye view” can be life-changing and overwhelming. Even seeing it on film in 3D was awesome and disorienting.

I have no intention of ever going to space. I wasn’t cut out for the physical challenges the training would require. I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t want to try, much to my husband’s disappointment, who would, I believe, go to space if he had the chance.

No, thank you. I like the earth; ground beneath my feet, trees above me, where they should be.

Sandra’s Stone has passed these tests, and made it to the space station, yet you don’t get the sense that she feels completely comfortable with this whole space thing. For George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski however, space-walking is old hat. Kowalski is calm, deadpan, and cracking jokes, as he blasts around with his jet-pack. He putters around the space station as if he’s in his den, in his robe and slippers, with a cocktail in hand.

When the dreaded space shrapnel arrives, flying faster than a bullet, upending the astronauts delicate balance of technology and luck, Kowalski is still calm and cool as a cucumber. He guides Stone through her first space disaster and then some, finally letting go of his own life to save hers. And that’s only the first 25 minutes.

The rest of the film tells Stone’s story of survival. Not only must she defy countless odds and physical dangers, she must face her own doubts and misgivings. We discover that Stone once had a daughter who died in a freak accident at a young age. Her sadness and regret from this tragedy threaten her will to live. Stone must find the strength to overcome her fears for the sake of the story she’ll tell if she makes it. Her choice is the choice to continue or not, to be or not to be, as Shakespeare put it over 400 years ago.

Bullock’s performance in these emotional moments is void of pretense, which is remarkable considering all the special effects and big budget techniques being employed to tell her story. It’s all a device, a sham, a show. We know this, but the truth of the moment wins out over the make believe, and we believe Sandra is Stone. We’re with her in the capsule making the choice with her.

I won't spoil the end of the film for those who haven't seen it yet, but I will say that it's quite the ride to the end.  

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