Wednesday, October 9, 2013


 4 / 5 

Everyone who sees Gravity will have a purely visceral response.  It's impossible not to be overwhelmed and awed by the visual marvels and technical perfection of the movie.

This is not a story or a setting we have seen rendered cinematically, not like this.  The reason there have been so many comparisons to 2001: A Space Odyssey is because it's the last, maybe only, time another movie has given us such a simultaneously jaw-dropping and matter-of-fact view of space.

Gravity opens with a sequence as beautiful to see as it is mundane in its depiction of astronauts at work. It's impossible both for them and for us not to notice, at every moment, where they are; the Earth rotates majestically behind them, the vast loneliness of space engulfs them.  Even though Gravity wasn't shot as an IMAX film, if you see it on a giant IMAX screen, especially in 3-D, the first impression Gravity makes is mind-blowing.

That's the second and third impression it makes, too -- there are few moments in Gravity that don't stun visually.

For a solid 10 minutes, the astronauts work in space, fixing the Hubble Space Telescope while connected to the space shuttle.  It's obvious and impossible to overlook that one of them is Sandra Bullock, the other is George Clooney and the third is probably not all that important to the movie since he has an Indian accent and we never see his face.  (It's a sad fact of modern big-budget moviemaking that the guy with the Indian accent won't be vital to the story.)

But Clooney and Bullock are immediately convincing, and even the most cynical moviegoer may have the fleeting thought, "How did they get movie stars into outer space?"

In that stunning opening scene, Clooney's character, a veteran astronaut named Matt Kowalski, is the jokey, jocular old man of the crew, doing his best to calm the nerves of an anxious first-time space-walker named Ryan Stone (Bullock), whose job is to fix the Hubble.  Dr. Stone is not used to any of this, and grows irritated by the way Kowalski jabbers with mission control and plays around in a high-stakes environment.

Those stakes are about to grow more than any of them know, because in a moment that is a textbook example of how to provide a lot of explanatory detail in a compact window, the astronauts learn they're in huge danger.

The incident pushes Gravity into an unexpected place: The movie becomes a very expensive, very elaborate two-hander, with Clooney and especially Bullock moving front and center.  If either of them faltered, the movie would be in jeopardy -- but they don't.

Neither do director Alfonso Cuarón, visual effects supervisor Tim Webber or any of the film's technical team.  Throughout, Gravity is absolutely riveting to look at.

The question, which still gnaws at me, is whether the remarkable, ground-breaking visuals are matched by the core story.  For all the vastness of space, Gravity is an intentionally small and sometimes claustrophobic film; the camera joins astronauts inside their space suits and whizzes through the cramped quarters of space stations that are nothing at all like the expansive ships of sci-fi legend.

But Gravity goes further than that, becoming an intensely personal story.  Bullock is particularly strong as a woman who finds herself in more trouble than she ever anticipated.  She delivers compelling, believable emotion, and it's hard not to get caught up in her plight.  And yet ... some of the finer points seem a little compact, maybe even obvious.

Gravity sidesteps the clumsy plot points of a similar movie made in the 1960s, Marooned, which took viewers into mission control and showed the worried faces of astronaut wives.  Gravity is not a melodrama, but it is, in the end, a human drama.  It touches on, but doesn't quite reach, some of the same emotions as Contact, another disarmingly beautiful movie about space travel.  Contact addressed the metaphysical and mystical questions about our fascination with space boldly and directly; Gravity sidesteps them a little too much.

When it becomes clear exactly why the movie chose its title, the revelation is oddly both lyrical and trite.  Set against the always-believable, never-less-than-magnificent backdrops, the emotional aspects of Gravity seem almost too, well, Earth-bound.

In another stunning cinematic accomplishment, though, Cuarón never allows us time to reflect on those qualms. In the moment, Gravity is a gripping, ravishing, groundbreaking movie.

Viewed Oct. 8, 2013 -- AMC Universal CityWalk


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