American film (2013). Warner Brothers/Esperanto Filmoj/Heyday Films. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón. Cast includes Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris (voice only). 90 minutes. Colour.
In an undefined Near Future (or perhaps, an undefined alternate near past; see Alternate History), America is still operating a space shuttle and the International Space Station is accompanied by another nearby Space Station built and manned by the Chinese. When the Russians destroy one of their own satellites, its debris triggers a "chain reaction" of other smashed satellites, creating a massive cloud of debris that destroys the American shuttle and, later, both of the space stations. The surviving astronauts from the shuttle, Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney), fly over to the abandoned ISS, powered by Kowalski's jetpack, but when the only connection to the station they can make is Stone's loose entanglement in some dangling cables, Kowalski detaches himself from her, to drift off and die in space, so that she can make her way to the station's airlock without being pulled away by his excess weight. She survives an accidental fire on board the ISS, enters a Soyuz capsule, and attempts to fly away, but it is stuck to the station by its prematurely deployed parachute; after she does a spacewalk to free the space capsule, she finds that it is now out of fuel (presumably due to damage from the debris, since such a capsule would undoubtedly be fully fuelled). In despair, she is about to commit suicide by releasing the capsule's air, but her faltering mind generates a hallucination of a visit from Kowalski that provides the idea of using the capsule's landing jets to reach the Chinese station. Once there, she enters its space capsule (capable of landing on Earth, unlike the ISS's Soyuz), and barely manages to detach the capsule from the disintegrating station and successfully land on Earth.
For the most part, this is a magnificent example of the Spacesuit Film, a riveting drama effectively refuting the old argument that realistic stories about working astronauts are inherently dull. Its many scenes of minuscule astronauts and Spaceships against the backdrop of an enormous Earth powerfully suggest the vulnerability and weakness of humans in space; indeed, the film might be said to suggest that frail humans are ill-suited for life in space, and hence constantly desperate to return to Earth, so the accidental termination of all space programs by an unfortunate accident emerges as a blessing in disguise. Alternatively, one might more modestly regard the film as a call for NASA to develop some new method to address the growing problem of human-made debris in Earth orbit, a concern also addressed in some old science fiction stories about space stations. For example, Arthur C Clarke's "Who's There?" (November 1958 New Worlds; vt "The Haunted Spacesuit" in Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales, anth 1963, ed Isaac Asimov and Groff Conklin) advises constant human vigilance to notice and eliminate threatening objects. Another story centred on this issue is James White's "Deadly Litter" ([February] 1960 Science Fiction Adventures).
Gravity's least successful aspect, perhaps, is a subplot involving Stone's effort to overcome lingering grief about her young daughter's accidental death so she can rediscover her desire to stay alive; as a result, the film confusingly argues that she must abandon an old attachment to Earth so that she will then be motivated to return to Earth. The film received much critical acclaim and won several Academy Awards (Oscars), including Best Director for Alfonso Cuarón – though not, as has become traditional for sf, the overall Best Picture award. It also won the Ray Bradbury Award, the renamed Nebula category for dramatic presentations, and the Hugo for best dramatic presentation (long form). [GW]
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