The space shuttle Explorer floats lazily 370 miles above the planet’s surface. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) propels above it, strapped into an experimental propulsion pack. He radios his complements down to Houston before regaling the control room with the story of his trip to Tijuana from when his wife left him while he was on his first spacewalk. Houston (Ed Harris) reminds him that most of the workers down on Earth have heard the story, before congratulating Matt on his upcoming retirement: this will be his last spacewalk. As he zips around in the propulsion pack, Matt takes it all in.
Below him, two other astronauts work on the shuttle. Shariff, an engineer, gleefully jumps around thoroughly enjoying the weightlessness. Nearby, on a docked structure attached to the shuttle, medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) diligently works on repairing a faulty transmission card. Houston informs her that they are not receiving a signal before asking her to provide a new estimate on how long repairs should take: she needs thirty more minutes.
Matt zips over to Ryan and asks her if he can be of some assistance. He playfully flirts with her before lamenting that he will not be breaking the record for longest spacewalk before he retires a personal career ambition. Houston confirms that Matt will fall shy of the current record but Matt decides to distract everyone with a story about his time in New Orleans while he assists Ryan with unscrewing the panel. A screw floats away from the structure and Matt hops out after it a safety tether catching him as the line goes taut closing his hand around the floating screw. Before Matt can complete his story, Houston sends an urgent message: the astronauts need to return to the ship immediately.
Matt fires his way back towards Shariff and the Explorer while Houston explains: a Russian satellite has self-destructed and the resulting debris cloud is hurtling towards the shuttle which lies directly in it’s orbit. The debris hurtles forward through space towards the shuttle as Matt turns around to recover Ryan. Just as he reaches her, the first bits of debris begin to pepper the Explorer striking Shariff. The barrage of debris rips the ship and destroys the structure sending Ryan flying off into space. Matt, shielded by a large chunk of the structure, continues issuing commands to Ryan insisting that she untether herself from the structure or else fly off into space. She releases the strap only to be flung out into space.
Ryan quickly tumbles away through the vacuum of space with no control over her movements. Matt continues to radio instructions while she begs for assistance ordering her to give him any information she can that can help him locate her position but she’s spinning too fast. As she starts to slow down, Matt’s voice cuts out and she’s left floating forward.
Oxygen dropping dangerously low, Ryan panics breathing heavily and calling out despite not receiving a transmission. After a few tense moments, her radio crackles to life Matt, using his propulsion pack, has found her. He blasts forward, colliding with her and tethering her to him so that he can tow her back to the ship. After recovering Ryan, he transmits his radio message to Houston but receives no response. Ryan asks him what the point of radioing into the dark is and Matt simply says that just because they can’t hear Control doesn’t mean Control can’t hear them it could just save their lives.
The duo begin their return towards the shuttle when Matt sees a space suit floating below them Shariff, removed from his shuttle tether as well. Matt guides the propulsion pack towards Shariff and orders Ryan to grab him. Looking at Shariff, she sees a chunk of debris ripped through his helmet leaving a hole through his face through which she can see clean through. She looks away, noticing for the first time a laminated photo tethered to Shariff’s suit of his family down below.
Arriving at the wreckage of the ship, they see that the hull was breached and the rest of the crew died from being exposed to the freezing temperatures of space. With life support running dry, Matt makes their next move clear: they need to get to the International Space Station. Doing some quick calculations, the pair determines that they have 90 minutes to get there before the debris cloud completes its orbit around the planet and catches up to them again bigger than before as it adds more satellite debris as it destroys other satellites in its path.
As Ryan continues to note her dwindling oxygen supply, Matt tries to calm her down by asking her about her normal life down below and if there was anyone waiting for her down below. Ryan proves evasive before Matt’s prodding results in a quieting confession: years prior, her young daughter had an accident on the school playground and died when she hit her head too hard. Matt is startled and offers his condolences, acknowledging how tough it must be to lose a child. Ryan doesn’t respond, lost in her own head.
The ISS pulls into view but there are clear signs of structural damage from the debris strike. The pair notices that one of the Soyuz re-entry modules of the ISS is gone the crew have abandoned the station. The other Soyuz has been damaged in the debris strike, resulting in a parachute having been deployed and currently entangled around the station. Matt tells her that while it can’t bring them back to Earth, they can use it to get to a nearby Chinese space station. He then checks his propulsion pack: there are only two bursts left.
As their oxygen supplies begin to bottom out, Matt fires the remaining bursts towards the ISS. As the two blast forward, they strike the ISS and roll forward tumbling away from one another. Ryan successfully catches on to part of the ISS’s paneling but Matt isn’t so lucky, bouncing off the paneling and out to space. Their connection tether snaps tight, ripping Ryan free of the ISS and dragging her out into space. As they are pulled out into space, Ryan’s leg catches on the parachute cords of the Soyuz module keeping her attached to the ISS. But Matt sees the connection is tenuous at best his momentum is going to pull her free and they will both die. Ryan realizes that Matt is going to detach his suit from the connection tether and begs him not to but Matt tells her she has to get back to the planet. He disconnects the tether and floats off.
As Ryan is propelled back towards the ISS by the disconnect, Matt continues to tell her what to do. Her space suit begins blaring alarms she’s out of oxygen. Ryan climbs up the side of the ISS to the airlock and promises Matt that she’s going to take the Soyuz to and get Matt back. He tells her that window’s closed and that jokes that he’ll about to set the record for longest spacewalk for a long time. Ryan fumbles with the airlock, struggling as she begins to lose consciousness from oxygen deprivation. She opens the airlock just in time and activates the decompression unit flooding the chamber with oxygen. She strips her suit and breathes large gulps of air, floating as if she were suspended in a womb.
After taking a few moments to recover, Ryan starts to make her way through the ISS. Despite the damage, the oxygen atmosphere is still intact. She passes by sparking wires which ignite a fire and set off the alarms in the ISS. Ryan grabs a fire extinguisher and tries to fight the fire before realizing that it’s a lost cause the debris’ second strike is imminent. Ryan races the fire and makes it into the second Soyuz.
Closing the hatch to the Soyuz, Ryan quickly dresses into a spare suit and gets to work trying to start up the Soyuz. She fires the thrusters and the capsule lurches free away from the ISS before jerking to a stop suddenly. The parachute cables keep the Soyuz anchor the capsule to the ISS station. Slapping on her helmet, she goes outside and begins releasing the parachute cables from the capsule as the debris strike arrives, blasting the ISS deflected narrowly away from Ryan’s Soyuz. As the ISS is destroyed, Ryan scrambles back into the Soyuz and fires it away from the debris.
Ryan resets her clock to 90 minutes and begins setting up the Soyuz’s flight path to line it up with the Chinese space station. When she presses the fire button, she realizes that she is out of fuel. Desperate for some sort of assistance, she tries to use the radio but only manages to stumble upon the frequency of a farmer who does not speak any English. She starts to breakdown, listening to the man talk to his baby who coos and gurgles into the radio. Ryan asks them to say a prayer for her as she is stuck in space and will be torn apart by the debris field with no one to know she survived. Accepting that she will die, she turns off the oxygen flow to the cabin and tells the farmer goodnight, slowly drifting asleep when --
--there’s a KNOCK on the door. An astronaut gestures at Ryan from behind the glass. As she starts to resist, he turns the handle and opens the hatch. Quickly swinging in, the astronaut plops down beside her and removes his helmet it’s Matt! He grins broadly, reactivating the oxygen flow to the cabin and tells her that the previous record holder could suck it he’s beaten the bastard well and good. Ryan asks him how he managed to get back to her and Matt explains: having tinkered around with the propulsion pack, he managed to get a few more bursts out of it to guide him back her way. She tells him that the fuel’s all gone but he points out that the capsule has re-entry rockets for landing. He tells her that she can pilot her way to the station that way. Matt looks over everything and realizes that she was trying to kill herself, telling her that losing a daughter makes everything harder but that’s not a reason to want to die. He concedes that if she really does want to give up, all she has to do is stay there shutting down the air flow once more --
-- revealing that it was a hallucination. Ryan gasps back to consciousness, realizing that she’s still alone. She reactivates the air flow to the cabin and as the oxygen levels rise she begins to recover racking her brain until she remembers what her subconscious was trying to tell her: the re-entry rockets run on a separate fuel tank: she can still make it. With renewed determination, she fires the thrusters and shoots off towards the Chinese station.
As the Soyuz capsule flies forward, Ryan sees that she will miss the station by quite a bit. Retrieving the fire extinguisher she used to fight the fire on the ISS, she blasts open the airlock and is thrown out into space. Using the fire extinguisher to propel herself towards the Chinese space station, she slams into it and manages to hang on. The debris field reappears in the distance, racing towards her as she begins her climb.
The debris strike slams into the Chinese space station, shredding it and forcing the station out of its orbit towards re-entry. Ryan climbs into the Chinese capsule and struggles to make sense of the symbols pressing random buttons to see if she can initialize the re-entry protocol. She pieces together what she needs as the capsule violently comes to life, surrounded and ping ponging off the debris from the station that surrounds it. Ryan says a prayer to Matt and asks him to say hi to her little girl…and tell her that she’ll see her soon.
The capsule explodes forward, taking the lead - the debris field scorching as it falls behind during re-entry with the Chinese station falling apart with each passing second erupting into lines of fire across the sky. Ryan closes her eyes as the capsule continues its violent spasms breaking apart into each of its proper components, gravity taking hold and dragging it down to Earth. Frantically pressing the buttons that seem familiar, she activates the parachute and slows the capsule’s re-entry above a large body of water.
The capsule hits the water and floats for a moment radio cracking to life as Houston is finally able to make contact, promising a rescue. But the weight of the capsule and the parachute quickly drag it (and Ryan) beneath the waves pulling her to the bottom of the ocean floor. Frantic, she struggles as the water floods the compartment, pinning her to the bottom of the capsule. Once it’s completely flooded, Ryan forces herself to swim, stripping the astronaut suit in her desperate fight to the surface.
She bursts out of the water and fights her way towards the shore. Collapsing momentarily on the beach, she sees the debris of the space station burning up in re-entry. Forcing herself to stand, she takes her first steps on dry land.
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