In space, as Ryan Stone soon discovers, one person can hear her scream — her mission commander Matt Kowalski.  After a debris avalanche severs her connection to the Space Shuttle, Stone tumbles out into space, shortly thereafter rescued by Kowalski. Without a ride back to Earth, the two have to try for one of the two space stations that might carry them home.  But just how much can they endure to survive?

Gravity gives audiences a terrific, roller-coaster ride with plenty of action.  The film was a pet project of director Alfonso Cuarón, who waited for years for the technology to catch up with the script in order to make it feasible. Visually, the film impresses from the first frame to the last, thanks to the brilliant work of animators and CGI specialists.  Cuarón paces the action masterfully, giving audiences time to connect with Stone (Sandra Bullock) in between three acts of pinballing around in space in order to get home. As an action film alone, it’s lots of fun, especially in the 3-D format.

The cast is almost as spare as space itself, but the two stars stick with the personas we’ve come to expect from them.  Sandra Bullock plays as Stone as awkward and withdrawn (when she’s not frightened out of her mind), who hasn’t done much but survive since the death of her daughter.  George Clooney’s Kowalski is a grizzled hand doing his last tour of duty in space, a charmer who has already done more than his share of living. In other words, while the action keeps us on the edge of our seat, the characters are a bit of a warm blanket for viewers.  That’s it for the cast, too; other than voices supplied by five other cast members, the whole film rests on Bullock and Clooney … and an army of animators.

Without a doubt, Gravity really takes its audience into space.  The realistic considerations of thrust and momentum play big roles in the harrowing events that take place, playing on the worst fears of anyone who hasn’t been in space imagines that adventure to contain.  However, by about the halfway mark the issues start feeling contrived.

** Small spoilers **

There is a sequence of unrelated disasters on the two space stations that have nothing at all to do with the initiating event or the debris it created. A fire just happens to break out when Stone seemingly reaches safety on one space station, and then the orbit decays on the second just as Stone gets there. The debris field seems to change orbits too, moving from the Hubble orbit of 353 miles to the International Space Station’s of ~270 miles, all the way to the fictional Chinese platform which drops to 8o or so miles up as the debris hits the station just before the station hits the atmosphere.

That’s not to say that debris fields aren’t a problem in space; China is worried about that with its proposed space station, in fact.  The low-earth orbit area has a number of satellites whose destruction could create this problem, but (a) the telecom satellites suggested in Gravity as part of the chain reaction are 22,000 miles up in geosynchronous orbit, and (b) the debris field wouldn’t shift altitudes like it does in Gravity. And unless one wants to argue that divine intervention takes place, the final action sequence involving re-entry is flat-out absurd.

** End spoilers **

The contrived feeling in the second half may sap a little bit of the tension, but not so much that it will lose the audience — not even those viewers who spot the problems. Plus, as good science fiction should do, Gravity tells a story about humanity, with science and technology merely the backdrop. Can someone dig deep and find the will to live when everything tells you that it’s time to give up? Gravity gives us an answer to that question, or at least one answer.  It’s not exactly deep, but Gravity rises to the top tier of thinking-viewer action films.

On the Hot Air scale, I definitely give Gravity a five:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Gravity is rated PG-13, but you’d probably want to think twice before taking younger teens to this film. There are a couple of very disturbing images near the beginning, and the tension is high and the fear very realistic.  There’s nothing objectionable (aside from a couple of instances of bad language in entirely understandable circumstances), but more sensitive younger viewers may have trouble handling it.