It is even more remarkable for the whole story being carried by only two actors (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) and for a time the disembodied voice of Mission Control (Ed Harris - a neat tribute to his previous roles). Clooney plays a convincing role as jocular seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski acting as mentor to nervous newbie Dr Ryan Stone.
This is a disaster movie, but a very personalised one. There is the customary large-scale destruction, with debris resulting from the Russians accidentally shooting their own satellite creating havoc and tearing at high speed through the space shuttle, the ISSS and the Chinese station and many other satellites, blacking out communication with Mission Control.
In the opening scene, Kowlaski, Stone and one other astronaut are outside the space shuttle conducting some repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope. Initially it seems that the debris will miss them, but due to a chain reaction it is suddenly heading their way. The three astronauts do not have time to get back inside the shuttle and end up floating in space. Stone is suitably panicked by the situation and starts hyperventilating and uttering lots of disconsolate grunts. Kowalski has a jet pack and manages to rescue her and clip them together, but their other colleagues are not so lucky. Ever calm, he hatches a plan to travel across a large expanse of space to the ISSS, from whence they will take a Soyuz capsule back to Earth. During their journey he manages to engage with Stone on a personal level and finds out that she tragically lost her only child, a daughter, at the age of four. As they approach the ISSS, it is clear that the station is deserted, with one Soyuz gone and the other is damaged, with the parachute deployed. Kowalski determines that it is still serviceable enough to hitch a ride across to the Chinese space station Tiangong, from whence they can take the Soyuz-equivalent capsule back to Earth.
By the time they near the ISSS, all of Stone's oxygen is gone apart from the air in her suit. By a combination of circumstances, they overshoot the station and are about to drift off into space. Miraculously Stone's foot is caught by the strands of the parachute. However, the pull of Kowalski's weight being tethered to her causes the grip to loosen. Kowalski can see that her only chance of survival lies with him unclipping their connection, and with a remark about breaking the spacewalking record, he lets go. Stone is distraught and insists that she will come and get him.
Drowsy from the lack of oxygen, Stone barely manages to get inside the ISSS. She recompresses the airlock, takes off her spacesuit and floats blissfully in a foetal position for what seems like an eternity. A journey through the station to Soyuz results in further disaster as a loose panel sparks when slammed shut but she does not realise this as she floats past. She tries to raise Kowalski and applies the same positive psychology techniques that he earlier used on her. Before too long the fire has taken hold and spread, and Stone once again barely manages to get into Soyuz and as a last-minute thought takes the fire extinguisher with her. At the time it seemed to be a bit of a strange thing to do, as surely there would be one inside the capsule, but like Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, this device has a future role to play for good or for ill.
Stone gets ready to propel the capsule off towards the Chinese station but the parachute anchors are holding tight. She sets off on another spacewalk to unscrew them just as the debris arrives on its second orbit, effectively destroying the ISSS as she struggles to set the restraining wires free. Having succeeded, she gets away from the mayhem only to discover that she is drifting in space with no fuel left.
Desperately trying to make communication with anyone, she issues a 'Mayday'. To her surprise, she picks up an earthbound signal which is coupled with interference. It is a language she does not understand (an Inuit from Greenland) and there is a dog and a baby in the background. Stone talks about realising that today is the day she is going to die, and turns down the lights and turns off the oxygen pressurisation dial in the capsule and lies back in her seat.
Suddenly the hatch opens and in climbs Kowlaski. In good humour, he says it is "quite a story" as to how he managed to be there. He immediately turns on the lights and the oxygen and pulls out a bottle of vodka from under the dashboard, having previously indicated that he knows where the Russians hide it, and takes a swig after offering it to Stone, who declines. Stone is agitated, as she explains that she is out of options as the fuel tanks are empty. Kowalski jovially retorts that there are always options, and the landing thrusters can still be used to propel them towards the Chinese station Tiangong from whence they can travel home as the Chinese capsule is exactly the same as Soyuz. Stone has been concerned about flying the capsule as she always crashed it in the simulator.
Equally suddenly, Kowalski is gone and Stone sits up with a jolt. She thanks Kowlaski for the insight and decides to go home. She asks him to remember her to her daughter. With the lights and oxygen restored, Stone determines how to separate the landing module from the other components of Soyuz and engage the thrusters. This successfully done, she heads off towards the Chinese station. As she nears the station, she has another moment of insight, dons her spacesuit and exits with the fire extinguisher. In scenes reminiscent of the Wild West, she tumbles and turns through space using the extinguisher as her jet pack. Once again she nearly overshoots, but manages to grab onto a railing at the last possible moment.
Once inside she heads for the Soyuz equivalent just as the storm of debris arrives again. This time all the lettering is in Chinese so there is an excruciating game of "eenie meenie miney moe" as Stone works how to disengage the capsule and head home. She is accompanied by a fiery band of debris from the now-destroyed space station heading alongside towards Earth.
Somewhat miraculously, the capsule lands in a lake not far from shore. When Stone opens the door, the capsule starts to flood and sink to the bottom. She eventually manages to swim out, but the weight of her spacesuit prevents her from rising to the surface. She discards it and swims upward towards the light and surfaces. In an echo of her foetal position on the ISSS, she floats blissfully on the surface and drifts towards the shore. Stone drags herself out of the water and grabs a handful of the red earth, savouring the feeling of being back on terra firma. Like a newborn foal, she struggles to rise to her feet, the effects of having been weightless for an extended period evident, and then triumphally succeeds. The film ends with the camera behind Stone, who is facing the wilderness in the knowledge that a rescue mission is on the way.
Sandra Bullock's extraordinary performance carries this film. It is unusual for a film to feature only two actors and even more unusual for the weight of the film to fall on only one actor. Apart from Clooney's brief cameo as a hallucination and the foreign language triumvirate of man, dog and child, Bullock's character is entirely alone in space.
At the start of the film, we are reminded that space is a completely inhospitable environment, where not only can no-one hear you scream, but unaided survival is impossible.
This is a classic story of salvation and survival against the odds. In the first act we discover the unsure and tortured rookie who finds a kindly mentor only to lose him again in tragic circumstances. He sacrifices himself and implores her to live. In the second act she finds her courage as a sole survivor in a truly remarkable way, but then seems out of options and decides to die in a controlled and dignified way ("pray for me"). At the start of the third act, after a delirious deus ex machina moment, she realises that she wants to live and finds the courage and the means to achieve this. It is a story worthy of any saga or heroic poem.
For a single actor to achieve in a convincing way such a depth of characterisation and range of emotion in terrifying circumstances where the odds are never good is nothing short of remarkable. Both terror and tension are palpable for much of the film, and it is all plausable enough for the willing suspension of disbelief. I did find Bullock's fearful grunts and vocalisations a bit wearing, but perhaps it was felt necessary to have some sound to interject into the silence. At other times the music score is quite powerful.
I would not be surprised if this film is the recipient of a number of Academy Award nominations. Does Bullock deserve an Oscar - yes, absolutely!
(P.S. A nice touch from the Australian perspective that astronaut Andrew (“Andy”) Thomas was an advisor to the project.)
Verdict: Highly recommended!