MOTW: Why Bullock and Clooney Shined Together in "Gravity"

Photo Credit: Warner Bros.
February 7th, 2014

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Alfonso Cuaron's first movie in seven years drew two of Hollywood's biggest stars to work together. "Gravity" features Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as a pair of stranded astronauts struggling to survive. The movie is a departure from the more everyday roles that both performers typically take on, but it shows them both at their best. Bullock and Clooney are able to carry a movie as the lead, but in "Gravity" they work together well. Their chemistry creates a moving picture of two people totally dependent on one another.

Film Summary

"Gravity" tells the story of a space expedition gone wrong. Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first space mission. Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, the veteran captain of the ship. Their space shuttle is struck by space debris from exploding satellites, killing the rest of the crew. They are stranded alone in zero gravity with declining oxygen and no contact with NASA. They struggle to remain together and find a way to survive by traveling between their shuttle and two space stations. Ultimately, Kowalski must give his life, detaching himself and drifting off into space to keep Ryan from doing the same. As she runs low on oxygen in a Chinese space station, he reappears to her in a hallucination. He shows her how to rig the space station just well enough to return to Earth's gravity.

Demands on the Actors

The movie places great demands on both Bullock and Clooney. The film has hardly any supporting cast and has long stretches of film dedicated to just the two of them floating in space. They have to be at the top of their game to make it work. Furthermore, the two performers have to demonstrate a lot of chemistry to make the relationship between Ryan and Kowalski believable, especially with so little supporting cast to provide contrast. The zero-gravity setting and action story make the film physically challenging, as well. Bullock spent six months in physical training to prepare, and her preparation shows. Bullock and Clooney are spectacular together.

Clooney's Performance

Although Clooney is one of Hollywood's top movie stars, in "Gravity" he humbly takes on the supporting role. He does not try to upstage Bullock but makes Kowalski a complement to her character rather than a competitor. When Kowalski sacrifices his life for Ryan, the moment is a great piece of acting by Clooney. It is also a recognition that this is Bullock's film. At the same time, his performance is very much in line with classic Clooney performances in films like "Ocean's Eleven" and "The Descendants." Kowalski is a charismatic, wisecracking leader with the trademark Clooney swagger. The role shows off Clooney's most appealing qualities as an actor and also functions as the perfect counterpart to Bullock's Ryan.

Bullock's Performance

Bullock has the movie's most challenging role as the novice astronaut who ultimately must survive space alone. Drawing on Clooney's humor and charisma, she shows intelligence, vulnerability, anxiety and desperation. These qualities help the audience to identify with her on her terrifying journey. At the same time, Bullock summons up a deep strength to get Ryan through her ordeal. The mental complexity of Bullock's character makes this one of the most impressive performances of her career. Bullock also pulls off the physical movement of her character in zero gravity with grace and beauty.

Clooney and Bullock Together

Clooney and Bullock's performances together define "Gravity." The other members of the movie's cast only appear as voices from Mission Control and only briefly. The success or failure of the movie therefore depends on the two stars' ability to shine together. Clooney and Bullock manage to do more than just go through a string of related action sequences together. Their characters share a deep bond and emotional chemistry. As they face possible death together, Ryan and Kowalski share their deepest fears and personal losses. Bullock and Clooney make this desperate connection utterly believable and very moving.

In "Gravity," Sandra Bullock and George Clooney make the movie work by showcasing their chemistry. The two stars do not show any trace of ego or desire to upstage the other but work together to create a moving portrait of two people who depend on one another for survival. Without that chemistry, even the pioneering special effects of the film are not enough to carry it to critical acclaim. That ability to work together makes this one of the most impressive movies for either Bullock or Clooney. Their unselfish work together defines these roles as significant in both actors' bodies of work. No film performance is more exciting than two actors working together at the height of their abilities.