The astonishing “Gravity” sends viewers free floating into space, where even dangerous debris and the threat of oxygen debt cannot dim the quiet beauty of Earth below.
The year’s great cinematic visual achievement (2013 has three months left, but we will not hold out hope for the second “Hobbit” film), “Gravity” creates a photo-realistic world hundreds of miles above Earth. Humans move believably in and outside vessels, without quick edits or cutaways fudging the visual details.
Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) instead favors wide, lingering shots and ingenuity.
Cuarón, visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (“The Dark Knight”) and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Tree of Life”) worked out new ways to mimic movement through space on screen. To dissect these developments would ruin the magic. Let’s just say they nailed it, at least to a non-NASA-trained eye.
Although “Gravity” features two huge movie stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), it is foremost a triumph of technologically advanced, seamless filmmaking.
The question in “Gravity” is never whether its depiction of space is believable. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) propels himself through an ocean of emptiness via jet pack with the same ease a guy might bring to jet-skiing on Earth.
The question is whether our hearts can take another collision with a piece of equipment by Kowalski or researcher/newbie astronaut Ryan Stone (Bullock). Or withstand one more instance of Stone becoming untethered from Kowalski or whatever solid piece of metal is keeping her from disappearing into the ether with nothing but her space suit and a rapidly declining air supply.
Debris from an old Russian satellite destroys the Americans’ shuttle and cuts off communication to Mission Control. As the debris keeps hurtling through space, Stone and Kowalski, stranded outside their vessel, have only each other and hundreds of miles of freezing, soundless space. Earth – land, oceans and city lights resembling rivers of fire –looms large but unreachable below them.
The astronauts will test their own physical limitations and the constraints of space as they seek shelter, an air supply and a way home. The derring-do and smarts exhibited in these scenes are thrilling, though “Gravity’s” setting means those thrills are slightly slower in coming than in most action films.
Cuarón offers visual reminders that even under the best circumstances, space travelers do not control their surroundings. Life in zero gravity upends Stone even before the debris hits, prompting constant, involuntary somersaults and nausea.
Cuarón’s careful use of 3-D enriches the visual fabric and increases the impact of space collisions. “Gravity” makes you grateful for those Russian and Chinese audiences who demand Hollywood keep making 3-D movies despite American ambivalence. Some directors know how to use it.
Comparisons between “Gravity” and last year’s “Life of Pi” are inevitable, since both 3-D films are visual game changers directed by versatile, foreign-born directors. “Pi” director Ang Lee received his second Oscar last year for his film about a boy and a tiger sharing a lifeboat; Cuarón would be a respectable choice for the 2013 directing Oscar, regardless of whom the competition ends up being.
James Cameron started out as James Cameron and remains so; he’s been consistently wedded to sci-fi and action and advancing cinematic technology. Cuarón has crossed genres, directing the frank, coming-of-age film “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” kids films ranging from lightly to heavily fantastical (“A Little Princess,” “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”) and “Children of Men,” which was sci-fi but not effects-driven.
He gave some indication he had a film like “Gravity” in his tank, but not much.
Because it’s opening in October and stars big names, “Gravity” has been positioned as awards-caliber in all categories. But it’s actually a perfect summer film: It clocks in at a lean 91 minutes and offers summer-movie dialogue – from Cuarón and his co-screenwriter son, Jonas – and summer-movie performances.
Clooney’s mission commander alternates breeziness and authority, a communication style patented by Clooney back on “ER.” Kowalski bonds with Stone by joking about how she finds him handsome, and forces Mission Control to listen to old anecdotes from his life via radio.
When the debris hits the fan, Kowalski takes control. But Clooney’s delivery offers little change in inflection. It’s pure Clooney-telling-us-how-it-is throughout.
It’s not a bad performance, just a movie-star performance.
Bullock handles the heavy physical demands of her role with unexpected, Sigourney-Weaver-esque elan. You always pull for her character, because she’s in distress and played by the eternally likable Bullock. But her performance at more emotional moments does not support the tragic back story the Cuaróns have given her character.
The back story itself is underdeveloped, and Bullock also is saddled with some highly dubious lines of dialogue.
This dialogue had to be strikingly clichéd to call attention to itself in an otherwise stunning film.
Call The Bee’s Carla Meyer, (916) 321-1118. Follow her on Twitter @CarlaMeyerSB