I had been a little crazed to see this movie, which went into the red when it started getting rapturous reviews. And in terms of a technical achievement, it is every bit as amazing and astounding as you have heard. In the end, however, it is just a survival story, lacking a bit of the depth and development (or the gravity, arr arr) that I had hoped for, although it is a cracking-good survival story. And it really does provide justification for seeing it in 3D, and IMAX, so if you have any interest, you should definitely NOT wait for video. In fact, I wouldn't even wait to read this review, as there turns out to be so little to the story that it's better to preserve all the mystery you can.
We open looking at Earth from space, and eventually a space shuttle drifts in from the right. This is the beginning of a 17-minute "shot," although because this is largely a digital creation, to say that it's a "shot" is a touch misleading. I'm sure it required immense preparation and painstaking work, but it's not an intensely complicated lengthy continuous film shot requiring the crack timing of a number of actors and crew, like Hitchcock's Rope or the opening shot of De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities (however misguided the rest of that film was). They're working and establishing characters, telling us that Bullock is a slightly glum schoolteacher-in-space, and Clooney is a charming, rakish Clooney-in-space. They suddenly receive word that a debris storm is coming their way, traveling faster than bullets, and aren't able to get inside before it blows everything around them to bits in the movie's first astounding effects sequence. The detail of the exploding equipment and the look of it all happening in zero gravity is quite something to see. Anyway, Sandra is sent hurtling off into space. Bye, Sandra!
SPOILERS > > >
Okay, again, you'll enjoy the movie more the less you know. You've been warned. Sandra is rescued by George, and they go back to the shuttle, only to find it worthless. they have lost contact with Houston. They're going to hoof it over to the International House of Pancakes Space Station (IHoPSS), which is apparently the only scientifically-impossible thing in the film. Somehow Clooney can't make it inside, so he bids Sandra ta-ta and flies off to die, rhapsodizing over the beauty of the sunrise. She gets inside and disrobes, and we have some homages to 2001 in the form of a floating pen, and also as Sandra assumes a fetal position, a nice development of that space baby we all love. She's also traumatized, which is probably why she swings past the fire burning there without a thought. She barely gets a chance to chill when the whole place is burning, and she has to find a new home.
Now earlier she had talked to George about losing her only daughter, and how she has no one on Earth, i.e. no reason to live. Well, space trauma is about to change all that! She blasts off in the non-damaged part of the station, but dang it all, it's snagged on the other parts. She goes outside to clear it, and--Dang it all! It's that debris storm again! It's swung around the Earth and now is back to inflict some more damage. Shit comes at the most inopportune times. Now we have the second symphony of 3D damage, and this one is even better than the first. Anyway, she gets away and speeds over to a Chinese station.
Now, while making repairs before the last storm, Sandra let the crucial wrench slip out of her grasp, and these kind of thoughtless mistakes do much to humanize her character and tighten the danger of the situation. She gets into the Chinese station, tries to decipher the manual, and finds the thing is on empty. Well, might as well sit right down to die, then. Now here comes two things (actually this first might have been at the Russian station), where the radio crackles to life and she thinks she has made contact with Houston! Only... It turns out to be some dude with a ham radio who is just fooling about. The absurdity of it is played off, rather successfully, against the real seriousness of Sandra's situation, and she gets into it, at the end of her tether, by laughing along and baying like a dog. We'll come back to this.
So once she realizes the Chinese station has neither fuel nor General Tsao's Chicken, she gives up and settles in for the big sleep. But who should pop by just then but: Clooney! He comes in (while you're like wait, wouldn't she freeze or explode if he opened the hatch?) and is all chilled, reminding her to check some other fuel source and gently chiding her for giving up. Well guess what? He's a hallucination. He is the embodiment of her unconscious (I wish my unconscious was hunky like that), and he has spurred her to find her inner strength, not give up, and be all that she can be while taking it to the limit one more time. She's about to separate the module when--not that debris storm AGAIN!? HOW does it know just when Sandra really could use a break?
Anyway, the station is cracking up and falling into the atmosphere, where things are getting a bit roasty-toasty. This leads into a nice, viscerally exciting while also naturally crescending(?) climax, where Sandra's module falls from the sky with the burning debris (LOTS of shit falling from space that day) and lands in the ocean. Testament to the visceral power of this movie is that both me and my friend found ourselves holding our breath as Sandra tries to swim for the surface. We see a frog, and after she breaks the surface, flies, which successfully communicate "life." She stumbles to shore and there are several moments when she seems about to kiss the ground--which by this point, wouldn't have been over the top. She stands, and the last shot is looking up as she towers against the sky. Entirely earned.
< < < SPOILERS END
So is it an amazing, visceral thrill ride? Yes. Is it an incredible, unprecedented technical achievement? Yes. Do I have a few quibbles? Yes, I do. As stated, it is a very good adventure story, but just an adventure story. I guess the build-up and early accolades primed me to expect more? Yet even after reading reviews warning that it is "Jack London in space," and whatnot... It still seemed a bit slight. Let's just say it's unlikely to haunt your dreams or cause you to ponder the deeper questions.
Much of this is because of the casting of Sandra Bullock. One one hand, this was brilliant, because it makes her character very human and relatable and she brings her well-known warmth and charm, and we really worry about her. She's definitely not a all-business, super-trained automaton. This is why I appreciated touches like her making simple mistakes like ignoring the fire or "putting down" the wrench, as they are perfectly understandable and make her seem very human.
On the other hand, Sandra Bullock is not known for plumbing the darkest regions of despair (hey but who knows, I haven't seen The Blind Side), and furthermore, the movie isn't interested in that. Her version of the blackest pits of desolation is still somewhat mild, laughing hysterically and getting sentimental instead of going silent and catatonic or cringing in terror, and well, I like my black pits of despair a little blacker. I kept waiting for her to just absolutely break down, and it never happens. But I think this was a decision the director made, in order to keep the film moving and, you know, the indomitable human spirit and all that. The ending feels quite earned, and you walk out exhilarated... I just think it was easily within its grasp to also shake you to the core.
Yes you should, and you need to see it in the theater and in 3D.