This film begins with the obvious portents: Dr. Ryan Stone (her father wanted a boy), played by Sandra Bullock, is space sick; her ECG levels are off and she can’t adapt to the constant movement of anti-gravity. After only 6 months of intensive NASA training, the medical engineer embarks on her first mission aboard the STS-157. Why does she want to be here? She likes the silence (a gentle nod to the Ridley Scott classic, Aliens, and the notion that in space no one can hear you scream).
She is accompanied by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a senior astronaut on his final mission. Kowalski’s seniority is encapsulated in his repetitive stories; the “this-reminds-me-of-a-time when…” attitude, well suited to the wise traveller. He is fixated on breaking Anatoly Solovyev’s spacewalk record, an obsession which injects a light humour amid the looming danger.
Directors Anfonso and Jonás Cuarón have chosen their characters well, ensuring that an initial dialogue or backstory is not necessary; a shorthand can be applied to both Bullock and Clooney’s characters, which allows time for sweeping visualisations, silent, spiralling scenes with breath-taking, panoramic shots of the earth as they engage in their spacewalk(s).
But that’s where the action kicks in. A far cry from the legacy of films announcing “Houston, we have a problem” , Kowalski plays down their craft’s collision with foreign debris, jesting that, “half of North America just lost their Facebook”, a salute to popular culture and a sign that technological times have changed for the better.
As debris litters their flight path, the pair battle to return to the Explorer, where they find their third flight companion, Shariff, dead. Finding the Explorer damaged beyond repair, the two remaining travellers use Kowalski’s thruster pack to propel them to the International Space Station. Kowalski casually questions Stone about her past. Stone is keener to stop her oxygen levels plummeting below 0% but she reluctantly divulges information about her child’s sudden death in a trivial playground accident.
As the pair overshoot their landing spot, Stone saves Kowalski but his momentum is carrying them away from safety. She if forced to watch Kowalski detach his tether, and see him float silently into oblivion. Stone is now left with a personal battle of mammoth proportions with Kowalski’s final words ringing in her ears; “you need to learn to let go”.
Now Stone needs to decide whether she can put her past behind her and start her voyage home, or remain trapped in the silence that she had been waiting for. “Either way, she’ll have one hell of a story”. I’m not entirely sure that a fire extinguisher yields the same force as a thruster pack, or whether Cyrillic or Chinese control panels are readable under intense pressure. But what this film lacks in sci-fi accuracy, it makes up for in emotional courage and sincerity.