Gravity: Bullock and Clooney Lost in Space


Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” brings alive the wonder of outer space — its vast, silent majesty and terrifying indifference — in a new way. The movie was shot in 3-D, but it’s not a murky postproduction conversion of the sort that more often than not annoys us nowadays. Here the cosmic panorama is deep and clear and ominous, and Cuaron draws us so deeply into it that we effortlessly share the characters’ desperation and despair as chaos erupts around them and their hopes of survival steadily dwindle.

Astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are in the sixth week of a mission to do a repair job on the Hubble Space Telescope. Kowalski is the mission commander, a veteran space jockey who’s so at home among the stars that he can joke about the dangers of his job (while blasting country music and nipping from a bottle of vodka); Stone is a first-time voyager, a levelheaded NASA technician who has signed on for career reasons.

The movie is only 90 minutes long, and it gets right down to business. It opens with a spectacular 15-minute scene, in which we see Stone and Kowalski floating outside their shuttle, the Explorer, connected to it by ribbons of cable that wave like sea grass in the weightless vacuum. Stone is doing the Hubble repair while Kowalski zips around nearby testing out a new jet pack, maintaining a stream of jokey banter over their audio connection in an effort to keep things light. Then we hear a radio communication from NASA control back in Houston, an urgent announcement that the Explorer’s mission is being aborted; a deadly storm of space debris is hurtling toward the ship. But the warning comes too late, and when the storm hits — it’s a fearsome hurricane of junked machinery — Stone and Kowalski are battered around like helpless figurines, clinging desperately to their lifelines. The Explorer is trashed beyond repair. Then we see that Stone has become untethered from the ship and is slowly drifting away into the void. This image, of a human being receding forlornly into the stark black nothingness of space, has a visceral horror that claws at our imagination.

This is just the beginning of the film. The story, written by the director and his son Jonas Cuaron, is a powerful tension generator, poetic in a way that’s not overbearing (a theme of salvation and rebirth runs throughout the movie) and raising up a succession of new thrills at every alarming turn. The feeling of you-are-there realism is exceptional. In an interview with Wired, Cuaron said he spent 4 1/2 years conceiving the film — designing the extensive digital animation and then layering in the actors with micro-painstaking care. Working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Cuaron’s most recent movie, the 2006 film “Children of Men”), he devised a limber camera style that carries us over and around and into the film’s complex environments; and to emphasize the characters’ isolation, he backgrounds many shots with the great blue orb of Earth, some 370 miles away (not really “below”; the movie scuttles our customary notions of up and down very early on).

The picture’s 3-D design is also unusually elegant. The opening catastrophe is, of course, an awesome into-your-face onslaught, but many other extra-dimensional touches — such as a dropped screw floating gently out from the screen — are sweetly subtle.

Clooney brings his familiar warm charm to the proceedings, and in this cold and increasingly hopeless setting, it’s greatly appreciated. But the movie is really all about Bullock’s performance, which skillfully blends technocratic determination with barely suppressed horror. She’s never been better than she is in this movie. Kowalski tells Stone that their only chance is to somehow (but how?) make it to the International Space Station, which is not exactly nearby; failing that, there’s also a Chinese station, but that’s 100 miles away. A sense of encircling doom grows stronger with each disastrous setback. Things look very bad and then much worse. The movie is an impressive feat of storytelling and a dazzling breakthrough for a director more gifted than even his many admirers may have suspected.

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Chuck Briese, Oak Ridge Now

[avatar user="cbriese" size="thumbnail" align="left"] Chuck Briese has been a resident of South Montgomery County since 1988. He and his lovely and patient wife, Leslie, have six sons, with only one left to finish high school. Chuck has been a Cub Scout leader, a Little League baseball coach, a church youth leader, and a general troublemaker over the course of the past 25 years. He is obsessed with his lawn, and likes restaurants that serve food that fills up the plate. He has a tendency to tilt at windmills, which may explain why he started Oak Ridge Now.

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