I saw this in Imax but save for one effect, Ryan’s floating tears, I don’t think that was especially necessary. I know the world disagrees.
It was a great inspiring adventure. Bullock has come a long way from Speed and expertly pulled off what was most often a one-man show. She shoulders the task as well as Tom Hanks did in Cast Away. Of course, George Clooney’s Matt is a bit more captivating than Wilson.
Matt is the senior officer in charge of their space mission. Ryan is a medical engineer, not an astronaut. She’s gone through just 6 months of training to get out there to perform IT in the cosmos, working on the computer system. Ryan is still pretty nauseous as her body continues to adjust to the lack of gravity. I thought her queasiness would play a part in the story, as she hasn’t been able to keep any food down, but it doesn’t, which is good and in keeping with the plot that is really about human strength (the real kind, not the superhuman), rather than contrived weakness. When the movie starts she, Matt and Shariff (as doomed as any red shirt) are outside performing technical repairs. They have a crew back inside their ship and are talking to Mission Control on earth.
Clooney has gotten to the point where he reminds me of what I always used to say about Cary Grant, that his light, playful side is so well known that even when he’s in a movie where he’s cold and withholding (Notorious) or depressed (Penny Serenade) the audience is fully familiar with the part of him that is missing. They can imagine him laughing and kidding, even if they never see him do it onscreen, because the essence of Cary Grant is so ingrained in their minds. You almost assume that any character Grant plays has all of his known personality traits, even when they’re not on display. This is also now true for Clooney and it works both ways: when he’s being irreverent (as Matt is in the beginning) you are aware that he can easily be grave. When he’s cool, you know he can be tender. When he’s gruff, you know there’s a reason for it and are never left to think it’s just bad temperament. You’re always cognizant of the different emotions under his surface and know that if he’s not showing them, there’s a calculated reason, because he wants to spur some particular reaction. Clooney has become such a commodity that it allows him to act in shorthand, one gesture or lip turn speaks volumes.
While Ryan works, Matt is regaling Mission Control with stories he’s told 100 times before. His wife left him, but he really misses the car she took with her. He’s concerned about the space walk record held by an astronaut rival that he’s determined to beat. He plays country music that Ryan asks him to turn down, so she can concentrate. No problem, he says. He’s being the life of the party because that’s his character, because it’s needed to break the tedium, but also because that laid back air will not add to Ryan’s nervousness as a novice in space.
He’s in the middle of a joke when Mission Control tells him that debris from a fallen Russian satellite is headed their way. Ryan is trying to bring the computer server up before they had back to the ship and it looks like they have time, but soon Matt realizes they don’t and orders her to stop what she’s doing. She hesitates, thinking she can finish in seconds and we see the commander in him kick in, ordering her to stop instantly. “Don’t make me tell you, again.” Before they can reach safety, the debris hits. Their ship is caved in. Shariff’s helmet crashes in. Temperatures in space can reach well below freezing and they need their suits and helmet for protection and oxygen.
The earth below them goes dark, all lights extinguished. After the debris storm is over, Ryan finds that she’s been knocked away from their base. She’s floating in darkness, alone in the world, in the universe. We share her isolation in the vastness. She begins hyperventilating as she spirals out of control in her suit. Too terrified to try to navigate the chaos.
Matt is wearing a jet pack that he can use to guide himself. He is still transmitting to her and after an excruciating length of fear as she takes in the reality of her situation thousand of miles away from civilization with no way back, Ryan calms herself down enough to respond to Matt and give him her location. He finds her and tethers her to his suit.
Matt asks for Mission Control’s permission to retrieve Shariff’s floating body. They’ve lost contact with Mission Control, but Matt keeps making blind transmissions. He tells Ryan that they can’t hear MC, but they never whether or not MC can still hear them. So you keep broadcasting, in case there’s someone out there who can save your life. Poor Shariff. The character was not played by a star, so the minute you see him as their co-worker on a dangerous mission, you know he’s not long for this world. He’s the expendable one. The one whose death will bring home the horror of the situation. And so it does. When they get next to Shariff’s body, she’s the one who has to reel him in. She comes face to what used to be HIS face. Some kind of space garbage smashed a hole in his helmet that went right through the middle of his head. But it’s so frozen up there that there’s no skull or body parts really. He looks more like a brittle mask than a man.
When they get back to their ship, it’s been blasted apart and the rest of the crew has suffered the same fate. Matt tells MC that he and Ryan are the only survivors. He doesn’t show palpable emotion, but the priority he made the retrieval of Shariff’s body, so it could be tethered to the ship and, hopefully, some day taken back home to earth, says it all.
He tells Ryan there’s a Russian satellite nearby and they can go there, get a capsule that they can use to travel to the Chinese satellite, which will get them home. She is running out of oxygen. She says she is only slowing him down and he should leave her. She’s going to die anyway. Her tank goes empty, but Matt tells her there’s more in her suit. She just has to “sip” it, not gulp. Stay calm. He assures her she can make it to the Russian satellite and he promises that there’s vodka there to revive her. He knows where the Russians hide it.
She apologizes for not stopping work on the computer and taking shelter as soon as he ordered. He says that the debris was coming no matter what and there is nothing she could do to stop it. He’s right, if they’d gone back to the ship earlier, they would have been inside when everyone else got killed.
Not that you can distract someone at a time like this – when their oxygen is dropping fast – but Matt tries. He asks where she is from and what people in her town would be doing at 8:00 p.m. What would SHE be doing? Driving. “Let me guess: NPR?” Nothing special. She listens to anything where there’s not a lot of talk. She values the quiet. That’s the one thing she likes about space: the silence. She could get used to that. Where would she be going? Was there someone waiting for her. A Mr. Stone? No. She clamps up but then bursts out that she had a daughter. Alert Matt takes out a mirror from his suit, so that he can see her in back of him and read her face, make sure she is not on the verge of hysteria or despair. Her daughter, Ryan continues. A four year old who fell at school playing tag, hit her head and died. It was so silly, she says. And we understand. Life is silly, senseless and capricious. You can’t really talk fair and unfair in a random reality like that. She was driving when she got the news and she has kept on driving since.
As his jet pack runs out of fuel, they plummet roughly onto the Russian satellite, but it has been hit by the debris too. They get swung around trying to enter the ship and they become untethered. Ryan’s foot is loosely caught in ties hanging from the satellite and she is holding onto the broken tether, keeping Matt linked to her. He’s floating, being pulled away from the satellite and Ryan. She says that she can maneuver them both to safety. He sees that she can’t. The atmosphere is too heavy and if they stay connected he will just pull her away from the cords that are her only perilous tie to the satellite. Once her foot loosens from those cords, they will both be floating in space, with no way to guide themselves to even a SMALL chance of escape back. This makes me wonder if gravity free space is like floating in the water. Can’t you kind of wave your arms and propel your body in a certain direction that way? I guess not, but I think I would have tried flapping my elbows like a chicken, just to see.
He says that she has to go to the satellite without him. And then she has to take it to the Chinese satellite IMMEDIATELY, because the last they heard from Mission Control the remnants of the fallen satellite were en route to them and they would be hit by even bigger and deadlier stuff soon, so she has to get out of there as fast as she can. No, she won’t go without him, she insists, holding the broken tether firmly. “I have you. I have you.” She says. He says, it’s not her decision and slowly starts to unbuckle the clasp from his end, breaking his link to her tether. Sealing his fate. It’s more chilling and sad than if he’d put a gun to his head and killed himself in front of her THAT WAY. “Nooo!” She screams. “I HAD you. I HAD you,” she sobbed and you feel the futility of his sacrifice just as she must. And it’s not just his life that she mourns, his sacrifice that she regrets. It’s the fact that without him she will be alone. Alone in this endless black. In a way, that’s worse than death. Better that they had perished together, exchanging, communicating, sharing, rather than that he, she, die alone out there. The silence she once graved is what is most scary now.
But it’s not there yet. She can still hear Matt. He’s giving her directions to get into the Russian satellite. She can see him floating, but he gets more distant each second. She says that she is going to get in and then find and save him. No, there’s no time. She has to be at the Chinese satellite before the next round of deadly space garbage hits. She can’t detour to find him, he orders. “That ship has sailed” he tells her calmly. No, she WILL do it. But he seems at peace already. You can’t beat the view up there, he says, where the sun’s glow is as big as a city. His country music is playing and he already seems at peace.
She gets into the satellite, just after her oxygen reserve is completely drained. She gasps as she finds air and enclosure that it must seem has been absent for a lifetime. She tears off her helmet, the space suit and is left in only a tank top and briefs. Barefooted she pulls her legs to her chest and floats in the fetal position, a brief moment of safety. Then, she pushes her way through the satellite to the dashboard and tries to talk to Matt. She wants his coordinates. She’s coming to get him. No answer. I think that maybe he can still hear her but is CHOOSING not to answer, because he wants her to head to the Chinese station and not waste time trying to retrieve him. I feel confident that he will turn up again. She makes a blind transmission to Mission Control and tells them that she is now the only survivor.
We saw flames flickering in the satellite as she navigated through it, but Ryan didn’t. Not until now. They erupt and start barreling towards her. She speeds away from them, fleeing into the capsule and locking the hatch, closing out the flames just in time. She pulls on a hanging space suit and I’m thankful. I’m afraid the space suits had been consumed in the fire and that she would be trapped without one.
She reads the instruction manual and launches the capsule, but is caught in its parachute attachment, the netting and ropes from it ensnaring her. She has to get out to try to unscrew the parachute from the capsule. Looks into space while completing this task and sees tons of more debris heading her way. She narrowly makes it to cover and then tries to restart the capsule when it runs out of fuel. Ok. That is where I draw the line. It’s a space satellite. Don’t international crews constantly maintain these things and make sure they have plenty of fuel just for emergencies like this?? Maybe the fuel tank was pierced during the debris avalanche. I can only hope there’s some plausible explanation for what looks like a bad plot device in a film that, to its credit, has largely felt real despite the extraordinary circumstances.
At this point, Ryan thinks the turn of events is almost as comical as it is tragic. I mean, when you’re on the verge of hysteria, Murphy’s Law is actually good for a quite a laugh. The tears of hopelessness she sheds sail away from her face and towards the camera lens, in a poignant use of the 3d effect. She tries to get a signal on the capsule’s dashboard and gets a foreign voice. She thinks it may be another satellite that can rescue her and says “May Day,” the person thinks that’s her name. [isn’t “mayday” a word that is universally understood]. She speaks frantically trying to make herself understood, but then hears dogs and realizes that the person on the other end is on earth, not close enough to help. She all but collapses in helplessness. She’s going to die. We’re all going to die. But SHE is going to die today. She lets the fear that this certainty brings her set in. Along with the dogs she hears a baby crying. The man sings. Is he singing the baby a lullaby. She used to sing to her daughter and she finds this soothing. She bids him to keep singing as she takes off her helmet, relaxes in her seat and welcomes death as if it’s only slumber.
She’s half-conscious when she hears a knock on the capsule door. It’s Matt. He is preparing to open the capsule. She motions for him to wait as she scrambles to put on her helmet as protection from the elements, but he doesn’t pause. Why not? He looked through the window and saw she didn’t have anything on her head. What was the point of knocking to give her a thumbs up if he’s just going to barge in in a way that might endanger her? He comes in and she cowers, but I guess it’s not’s 145 degrees below Fahrenheit out there after all, because even though his entry makes it a little windy in there, it doesn’t seem to cause her much discomfort.
How did he get there? It’s a long story he says, jocular as ever. Turns out there was still a little power left in his jet pack, there’s ALWAYS something left, and without her around to hold him back he was able to maneuver to safety. Did she get the vodka? No, he never told her where it was. He finds it under the seat and offers her some. She declines. He says they better get going to the Chinese satellite. But they’re out of fuel. But they can still launch can’t they? Didn’t she learn that in training? They can use that as their fuel. She doesn’t think it will work. That’s right he says. She should give up. Her daughter is dead – she clinches – so why bother carrying on? It would be just easy to just curl up in a ball and resign herself to dying. Go ahead. Lay back and die. It’s easier than fighting. Accepting his challenge she sits up … Matt disappears. It was her subconscious, yes, but I still expected her to reach under the seat and find the vodka bottle whose location SHE didn’t know and prove that it WAS indeed a paranormal visitation and not just Ryan talking to herself into action. But it’s not that kind of movie. It’s about will power rather than fantasy.
She figures out how to launch the capsule. Gets enough force to propel herself to the Chinese satellite. When she gets out of her capsule, she takes a jetpack but then discards it prematurely I think. I’m afraid she will lose her grip on the satellite and go floating out to space. I keep wanting her to somehow tether herself to the satellite spokes as she tries to locate and enter the hatch rather than kind of just jumping from one part of the vessel to another, completely unfettered. I’m not the only one afraid. People around me audibly exhale when Ryan finally opens the hatch door and is almost knocked from the satellite as the lid swings back. She makes it in just barely. Brief respite again. Accepting Matt’s death she tells him he’s going to see a little girl with knotted hair, because she never liked to brush it. Tell her her momma loves her so much and is so, so proud of her. Ryan is headed home or to her fiery death if the satellite is burned as she plunges through the atmosphere. Either way, down they go.
The trip back to earth seems like a surprisingly fast one. Before we know it, Ryan’s satellite capsule, parachute open, is plummeting into the ocean. Her dashboard hits up. Mission Control is asking the unidentified capsule to identify itself (it’s a wonder that the military doesn’t shoot at the capsule as a downed Chinese surveillance vehicle, but they know they have a missing space crew and probably are gleeful realizing that someone has survived. The capsule hits the surface, but it’s filling with smoke and she has to open the door. Water rages in and the capsule begins to sink. It’s a rush for time as Ryan races to get out before she drowns. In the water, weighed down, she has to pull off the heavy space suit. With herculean effort she swims to the surface, again in just her tank and briefs.
Heading towards the muddy shore, she climbs through plants and finally slithers out of the water, onto the damp soil. Terra firma. She lays flat, reveling in its solidity. U.S. planes fly overhead. She holds the mud in her fingers, loving It and everything it stands for. Home, survival, triumph. She tries to make it to her feet, but stumbles at first, her body so unused to gravity. The reverse of where she started. She tries to rise again, loses her balance, but regains it. Like a baby taking first steps. Then, walking upright, body wet from the water, skin glowing and revitalized, bare feet firmly on the ground.
The movie is an affirmation and I love that we don’t see the planes land. She made it back alive, not by herself necessarily, but without anyone rescuing her. It’s a story of courage, perseverance and autonomy. And it’s not as if the audience ever thought Ryan couldn’t do it. She panicked, felt forsaken, almost gave up, but she was NEVER incompetent, just thrust outside of her skillset and not completely sure there was a world below to which it was worth returning. But, in the end, the will to survive is greater than the pain of going on. Life is not the easiest way forward, but winning the fight to make it the ONLY way, the only choice, is the best victory.
Ryan faltered like we all would and succeeded like we all hope we could. The film’s suspense originated more from thought than action and that’s exactly what made it so exciting.