It’s out there and we’re here, and yet it is tantalizingly close. Ah, the siren call of outer space.
But home is where, in the end, you long to end up and that’s the point of “Gravity,” a first-class thriller about astronauts in space that opens this Friday. Take my word for it, you want to see this movie.
The 3-D film, which clocks in at a tense 90 minutes, stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. She plays astronaut Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first shuttle mission. He is veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, a jocular space cowboy who is captain of the mission.
The movie opens with Ryan up in space, working on an experiment while tethered to outside the shuttle. Matt is zipping around the exterior of the craft, too, having a fine time testing out a fancy new jet pack.
Suddenly, floating metal debris from a Russian satellite slams into the shuttle, destroying it and leaving the two adrift in space. Will there be any way for them to get back to Earth?
That’s just what happens in the first dozen minutes or so of “Gravity.” What follows is what you long for movies to do but few actually manage: “Gravity” takes you where you can’t go yourself, and you see it through the eyes of a character with whom you come to identify and about whose fate you care. And “Gravity” will have you sitting at the edge of your seat, biting your nails in suspense.
The movie’s message is that the pull of the Earth and human connection remains strong, no matter how far above it in the quiet dark of space one floats. And isn’t that the point of the best of the films that have been set in space over the years, ever since Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth in 1961? (American astronaut John Glenn staked the U.S.’s claim to space when he circled the planet nearly a year later.)
Consider director Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), which recounts the heroic efforts of real life Apollo 13 astronauts to make it home in 1970 after mechanical difficulties crippled their spacecraft. Even bad space-travel movies, of which there have been dozens (including “Armageddon,” “Mission to Mars” and “Marooned”), all have as a key plot point whether the space travelers will ever return safely back to Earth.
For many of us who are a certain age, manned space travel is a major marker of our childhood and adult years. There were the early Mercury and Gemini missions, then the Apollo ones, including the moon landings, and finally the space shuttle flights, including two awful disasters in which crews perished. I’m guessing there’s no one over the age of 35 who doesn’t remember exactly where they were on the morning of Jan. 28, 1986, when they witnessed on TV or heard the tragic news that the 7-person crew on the Challenger, including Christa McAuliffe, the 37-year-old school teacher and mother of two who had been picked from among 11,000 applicants to be the first civilian astronaut, had been killed when its spacecraft exploded 73 seconds after liftoff.
That’s why “Gravity” and other films about astronauts resonate so with viewers. Sure, most of us will never travel into the far reaches of space ourselves, but we’ve spent our lives watching the real-life lucky few (and sometimes unlucky, as with the Challenger crew) blast off into the heavens.
For a few hours, movies like these make us feel that we too are taking the journey, even as we have our feet planted safely on the grungy carpet of the multiplex.