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Movie Reviews by Michael Phillips
The movie "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
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.
Film Critic Rating: 3.5 out of 4 Stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language).
Running time: 1:31.
Cast: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone); George Clooney (Matt Kowalski); Ed Harris (Mission Control).
Credits: Directed by Alfonso Cuaron; written by Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron and Rodrigo Garcia; produced by Cuaron and David Heyman. A
Gravity Movie Trailer
About "Gravity" the Movie
Gravity is a science fiction thriller film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, who also co-wrote, co-edited and produced the film. Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as American astronauts who are stranded in space after the mid-orbit destruction of their Space Shuttle, and their attempt to return to Earth.
Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer and mission specialist who is on her first space mission. According to Cuarón, Stone is "a character who lives in her own bubble," and in the film "she's trapped in her space suit." Bullock's character was extremely demanding and daunting. For her role, she spent long hours by herself being whipped around a sound stage with nothing but hundreds of cameras for company. She called the experience "lonely" and said there was "frustrating, painful isolation" on set, but in the best way and described her working day on the shoot a "morose headspace".
George Clooney stars as Lieutenant Matt Kowalski, the commander of the team. Kowalski is a veteran astronaut planning to retire after the Explorer expedition. He enjoys telling stories about himself and joking with his team, and is determined to protect the lives of his fellow astronauts.
Despite being set in space, the film uses motifs from shipwreck and wilderness survival stories about psychological change and resilience in the aftermath of a catastrophe. Cuarón uses the character, Stone, to illustrate clarity of mind, persistence, training, and improvisation in the face of isolation and the consequences of a relentless Murphy's law. Gravity incorporates spiritual or existential themes, in the facts of Stone's daughter's accidental and meaningless death, and in the necessity of summoning the will to survive in the face of overwhelming odds, without future certainties, and with the impossibility of rescue from personal dissolution without finding this willpower. Calamities occur but only the surviving astronauts see them.
The impact of scenes is heightened by alternating between objective and subjective perspectives, the warm face of the Earth and the depths of dark space, the chaos and unpredictability of the debris field, and silence in the vacuum of space with the background score giving the desired effect. The film "Gravity" uses very long, uninterrupted shots throughout to draw the audience into the action, but contrasts these with claustrophobic shots within space suits and capsules.
Human evolution and the resilience of life may also be seen as key themes of "Gravity." The film opens with the exploration of space—the vanguard of human civilization—and ends with an allegory of the dawn of mankind.
"Gravity" Movie Review - "Gravity" Stars Sandra Bullock & George Clooney