Can a thrilling story be woven from a cast of two and one location? It sounds like the lowest of low budget movies, but I’m guessing Gravity wasn’t financed by the director’s credit cards and a loan from a mate. For a start there might only be two actors, but they are Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who don’t come cheap. And the location is outer space – and not in a Plan 9 from Outer Space type way.
The plot of Alfonso Cuarón’s movie is no The Big Sleep – it’s at the simpler end of things and probably taught in week one of all How to plot a Movie classes. Put your characters in a bit of a pickle and see if they can escape. We’ve seen it a thousand times before, and to retain interest it is usually complicated with subplots and romances. In Gravity the filmmakers have shoved subplot out of the escape capsule. There’s no romance, not even a kiss. Somewhere in the film’s production someone must have said We’ve got Clooney and Bullock – surely they should fall in love, but to his credit Cuarón resisted.
The stars are two astronauts and the pickle they find themselves in is the destruction of their space shuttle whilst they are doing a space walk. They have to find alternative means to return to earth. This is a worse spot to be in than if your car breaks down – in space there aren’t other rockets passing by with friendly drivers to give you a lift to the nearest garage. With one jet pack and quickly depleting oxygen supplies they are quickly thrust into a race for survival.
The premise is frightening and suggests my lifelong decision to stay where there is a ready supply of oxygen has been sensible. All plans to become an astronaut or join Richard Branson on his space adventures have been put on hold. The special effects appear to be very realistic, although to be honest I have never been in outer space, so I am really just guessing. That it looks like outer space could look is about as accurate as I can be, although it must be realistic – at one of the film’s press conferences a journalist did ask the director what it had been like to film in space.
The plot does become repetitive, there’s a lot of pressing buttons in space rockets and trying to get them to head in the right direction. A lot of flying through space in big spacesuits trying to grab onto the latest spacecraft that might be able to get you back to earth. A lot of flipping through instruction manuals trying to start another escape capsule. Written down it sounds tedious, but on screen it is nothing of the sort. The tension as Bullock space walks towards the International Space Station, trying to grab hold of any part of it knowing that if she misses she’ll float off, forever circling the earth is quite unpleasant. Even if I know that big stars tend to survive I watched Gravity very unsure how things were going to end.
So – can you make a thrilling movie with the slightest of plots and just a brace of actors?