There are only two words to describe George Clooney’s performance in this or, indeed, any film: chaise longue. Wearing a space suit and jetpack, it feels like his character, Matt Kowalski, might swoosh over and offer co-star Sandra Bullock a Nespresso Volluto at any moment. Kowalski is a man so capable that, as he faces a slow and painful death by suffocation, floating into the dark void of space, he is gushing about watching the sun rising over the Ganges. What a guy! He sounds just like my sister whenever she’s been to Glastonbury. How on earth would Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, cope without him? For the rest of the film, we find out.
Dr. Stone is a more developed character and so needs a three word description: mom in space. Despite being hastily established as a brainiac mission specialist she mostly comes across as a hapless everywoman who has inadvertently ended up thousands of feet above the ground as part of her job. She spends a lot of time literally being towed along on a string by Clooney. Later, we learn she is more at home floating around a ship in a utilitarian vest and pants – the uniform of women in space – than flying one.
As with Captain Phillips, the inherently dramatic situation – basically, what would you do if you were trapped alone in space and your ship had been spliced in half – is more interesting than either of the two characters. As Dr. Stone hurtles towards earth in an escape shuttle, it’s only by thinking of her (dead) child that she can pull herself together. It’s not being cleverer or more determined or simply good that makes her succeed, it’s being a mom.
The sound and visuals are the real stars. Barely audible dialogue at the start curtails any popcorn crunching, while cuts between explosions and eerie silence create tension where there might have otherwise been boredom. It’s a very well directed film that captures the feeling of orbiting, weightless, in space, like never before – perhaps so much so that this has overshadowed everything else.
As Sandra Bullock jumps from burning ship to escape pod to flying pieces of debris, you get the feeling she’s in a time loop, perhaps hallucinating, but definitely leading up to a twist. Maybe she’s really dead? However, when it comes it’s not as good as it needs to be, more incidental than anything else. Like a virtual reality ride, a lot of the time it’s not about George Clooney or Sandra Bullock, however wonderful you may think they are, it’s simply about enjoying the experience of plummeting through space.
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in the Alien films is a far better character. Like Dr. Stone, she starts off as a bit vulnerable – a woman in a male-dominated universe – but goes on a real journey before kicking a load of aliens’ arses and eventually becoming one, Metamorphosis-style, herself. Yes, she also, at times, only wore pants and a vest but, unlike here, it didn’t look like she was a mermaid floating around in a Galaxy advert. If George Clooney had popped up, batted aside a facehugger and offered her a Nespresso, I’m pretty sure she would have told him she’d make her own.