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'Gravity,' a breathtaking space adventure ★★★ 1/2

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are lost in space in this eye-popping Alfonso Cuaron spectacular.

Michael Phillips

Talking Pictures

October 4, 2013

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"Gravity" defies itself. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts — a newbie scientist and a veteran cowboy — who dodge space debris and the usual narrative expectations while coping with a highly compressed series of crises 372 miles above the Earth's surface. It's a nerve-wracking visual experience of unusual and paradoxical delicacy. And if your stomach can take it, it's truly something to see.

Director and co-writer Alfonso Cuaron, who wrote the script with his son, Jonas, has delivered unto big screens (the best way to go with this one, for sure) an hour and a half of breathtaking, oxygen-depleted cinema, as accomplished and crafty in its illusions as Georges Melies' "A Trip to the Moon" was 111 years ago.

I'm not sure it's a game-changer, whatever that means in the roiling film industry of the moment. The movie hasn't much on its mind; some of the writing is pretty clunky; and there's a rather cheap aspect to the female protagonist's tragic secret. But "Gravity" is the first movie in a long time I've been eager to see again, and quickly, just to re-experience the size and flow of its images, and appreciate the how'd-they-do-that? of it all.

The movie begins with a killer 13-minute single take, building on Cuaron's most elegant sustained camera movement in his previous feature, the undervalued "Children of Men" (2006).

Bullock and Clooney are medical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski, respectively, and essentially they're starring in a two-character off-Broadway play in space, with an $80 million scenic budget. The film interweaves an array of digital effects with intricately choreographed live action, paying close attention to both human interplay and human/camera relationships.

Stone and Kowalski, along with their colleagues, are wrapping up a space shuttle mission involving an add-on to the Hubble telescope. A few minutes into the picture, disaster strikes in the form of flying satellite debris, scattered by an explosion.

The rest of "Gravity" finds Stone's and Kowalski's oxygen levels heading toward the red zone, while their communications with NASA mission control are lost. (Ed Harris, who apparently never left NASA after "Apollo 13," is heard as the voice of mission control.) Stone's attempts to reach the nearby international space station, then a Chinese space station, as she scrambles as fast as slow-motion gravitational circumstances allow, occupy much of the rest of the story.

Bullock's character is burdened by a grievous loss, intended as the emotional underpinning of "Gravity." The movie conspires to put Stone through various degrees of physical and psychological hell. It's the slickest-ever serial installment of "The Perils of Pauline," with a more capable female protagonist.

You never can tell with these things, but I'm very curious to find out how a global audience will respond to Cuaron's stripped-down, exposition-lite storyline. What's remarkable about the film has nothing to do with anything anyone actually says out loud. The characters represent coping mechanism strategies, Clooney's nattering veteran contrasting sharply (and somewhat self-consciously) with Bullock's determined if queasy first-timer.

What's remarkable about "Gravity" is all the silence, coupled with the clarity and detail of the images of space walks, and space panic, and the view from up there. One second we're seeing the Earth through Stone's astonished eyes, from inside her helmet; the next, the camera appears to have drifted outside that helmet and we're regarding her from a new angle. Then something comes drifting (or whizzing) into view from miles away.

Much of "Gravity" has been photographed, or assembled, to appear to be happening in real time, in a single take. Cuaron loves a flowing sequence, but as co-editor of the picture, he's also a wizard at knowing precisely when to cut for emphasis. The film reminds us of two things. One: the pleasure of being in the company of a first-rate director who knows how to move a camera around. Two: the pleasure of seeing a popcorn picture showcasing a genuine leap forward in cinematic and digital technology. The 3-D was added in postproduction, but it's a valuable add-on indeed.

Clooney could scarcely be more relaxed and ingratiating in a role originally earmarked for Robert Downey Jr.; the character's banter may not be daisy-fresh, but Clooney finesses it like a pro. Bullock remains front, center and in a coolly controlled sweat throughout "Gravity."

She and Clooney shot much of their footage in a 9-by-9-foot cube, in costume, calibrating their movements and dialogue rhythms to effects-based footage Cuaron shot with the film's inspired cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, a longtime Cuaron collaborator. Actors usually are required to hit their marks, but the rigorous spatial and timing specifics of the "Gravity" shoot daunted Downey, who bailed and made way for Clooney.

To say this sort of assignment requires a highly technical acting approach is to understate things. Yet one of the reasons audiences like both Clooney and Bullock has nothing to do with their technical facility and everything to do with their grace under fictional pressure.

Way back in "Speed," there was Bullock, getting truthful laughs out of the dumbest thriller premise ever. "Gravity" may not have much more on its mind than "Speed," but it's a relief to see an unconventional big-budget studio movie that doesn't hew to the same old pounding action beats, or person-to-person physical violence.

"Gravity" proceeds to an action beat all its own. It's relentless, and there's a miniclimax tacked onto the maxiclimax that's, like, enough, already. Yet even that belongs to a long, proud moviemaking tradition of beautifully executed excess.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Gravity" -- 3 1/2 stars

MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)

Running time: 1:31

Opens: 10 p.m. Thursday