Taking place on a damaged space station, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is the most challenging space adventure focusing on the human heart since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968). It forces you to examine the ultimate purpose of life given the fact that we are all going to die.
What is incredible about Cuaron’s film is that there are only two actors on screen, Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone) and George Clooney (Matt Kowalski). They are initially seen engaged in a lengthy space walk to repair their space station, seemingly standard fare until things go brutally wrong.
Bullock is a no-nonsense engineer while Clooney basically plays a version of himself. She’s as gloomy as he is lighthearted, and he enjoys trying to communicate with Houston Control with at least one story they haven’t already heard. Unfortunately, I can relate to Kowalski’s difficulty.
However, chaos engulfs the two colleagues when debris from a demolished Soviet space station enters their orbit. What’s worse, the debris is traveling
in excess of several thousands of miles per hour, and they have to get back into the station before being seriously hurt. When they fail, Stone is suddenly thrust into space, spinning uncontrollably as her oxygen supply dwindles. Kowalski hunts her down, eventually attaching her to himself with a long cord.
What happens next is an incredible study of what I have frequently called the human condition. As Kowalski tries to guide Stone to a neighboring station, he engages in a conversation that forces her to re-examine her life. You soon learn that she is all work and no play, something related to the tragic loss of a child years earlier.
As frivolous as it may sound, Kowalski succeeds marvelously at making fun of himself. Handsome, smart and sarcastic as hell, he tries to make Stone care about living even if it means making a transparent pass at her where he gets the color of her eyes wrong.
Central to the film, Clooney is always in a spacesuit except for a late scene that I don’t dare give away. In Bullock’s case, she is able to shed her suit when reaching a station and confronts the odds of getting safely back to Earth.
Physically injured after enduring the onslaught of the debris referred to above, there is a remarkable scene where Stone curls up into a fetal position, a tube in the background looking as if it was an umbilical cord. Clearly, the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki is as beautiful as it is mesmerizing.
The central question facing our beleaguered astronauts is whether life is worth living, particularly given the monstrous disappointments that eventually confront us all. Stated simply, is it worth sacrificing your life for another person?
In a sense, the question facing Bullock’s character was the same that Matt Damon confronted in “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), when a dying Tom Hanks looked up at the youngster and emphatically told him, “Earn this.”
Shouldn’t that be the legacy we impart to all of our children?
I know this is going to sound somewhat sacrilegious, but I was a bit disappointed with “Captain Phillips.” While it is full of the expected combination of tension and terror, I ended up feeling sorry for the Somali pirates.
When the Maersk Alabama was hijacked in 2009, it was the first American ship to be captured by pirates in over 200 years. The situation darkened quickly when the four Somali bandits kidnapped the American captain as they tried to flee in an enclosed Maersk escape vessel.
The film is at its best when it initially concentrates on the lives of the Somali pirates in their homeland. Living in destitution, a local mob recruits them to hold captured ships for ransom. You can fault them all you want for their illegal activity, but who can blame them for trying to elevate their standard of living where it was otherwise impossible to do so.
As most of you know, Tom Hanks plays Captain Richard Phillips, a dedicated American seaman living in Vermont. He knows that his trip from Dubai to Nairobi, Kenya, will flirt with danger, but that is the price he pays for doing his job.
Captain Phillips is a by-the-book guy, and so is his opponent, Muse, the leader of the Somali pirates. Played marvelously by Barkhad Abdi, it is a performance that could very well land him an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
As Muse and his comrades take over the Maersk, the last half of the film consistently loses strength as it devolves into an emotional duel between the two opposing leaders. Muse doesn’t want to hurt anyone and simply seeks to collect a ransom so that he and his compatriots can partially share a minor portion. There is a memorable moment on the escape boat where the captured Captain Phillips looks at Muse and says in words to the effect, “You don’t have to engage in kidnapping.” To which Muse soulfully responds, “Maybe not in America. Maybe not in America.”
When things go terribly wrong for Muse and his comrades, you feel their anxiety and fear. One of the four is a 14-year-old injured boy, and you simply hope that he finds a way to live.
While I truly admire director Paul Greengrass, he spends far more time focusing on the overwhelming power of the American military than he does the conditions in Somalia. Put another way, instead of killing pirates and bombing countries like Iraq, wouldn’t we have greater success by acting more like Mother Theresa as a nation than we do emulating Genghis Kahn?
While it is giving nothing away to tell you that Muse is presently doing a 33-year federal prison sentence here in Terre Haute, Ind., you can’t help but remember his wistful statement to Captain Phillips that he just wanted to move to America and buy a car in New York. Oddly, I hope there comes a day when he is able to do that.•
Robert Hammerle practices criminal law in Indianapolis. When he is not in the courtroom or working diligently in his Pennsylvania Street office, Bob can likely be found at one of his favorite movie theaters watching and preparing to review the latest films. To read more of his reviews, visit www.bigmouthbobs.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.