Movies

‘Gravity’: Weighty, airy, wondrous

ltoppman@observer.comOctober 3, 2013 

GRAVITY

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, left) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) try to survive after an accident in space in “Gravity.”

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  • Gravity A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive, after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

    A+ STARS: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney.

    DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón.

    RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes.

    RATING: PG-13 (intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language).

You can’t exactly call Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” the best film of its kind, because it has no kind: It stands alone as an extraordinary balance of 3-D effects, heroes-in-jeopardy storytelling and emotional depth.

The only comparable space footage I’ve seen has come in IMAX documentaries, where someone attached a camera to the outside of a space shuttle. Yet Cuarón’s film has a spiritual component – human or divine, and we’re left to decide – that elevates it to the level of a classic.

Cuarón directed, wrote the script with son Jonás, edited the film with Mark Sanger and co-produced. “Gravity” shares a theme with his two other first-rank films, “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”: They’re about people who try to survive against nearly insurmountable odds and must choose whether to lie down or keep struggling.

In this case, that decision falls mainly to Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist who’s aboard a spacecraft when debris from an exploded satellite cripples the craft. She and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), the astronaut in charge of the mission, plan to leave their ruined ship and jointly use a jet pack to reach the International Space Station, which may have a module aboard that can get them back to Earth. Things soon get more complicated, especially after they lose communication with NASA.

Cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki captures the beauty and loneliness of space like no one before: These voyagers spinning unprotected through the sky see the orange band of a sunrise on Earth, then a daunting infinity of distant stars. Naturally, the 3-D effect jolts us when space clutter hurtles toward our faces. Yet Lubezki also uses it for humor – a Marvin the Martian doll floats peacefully back to the cosmos from whence he came – and emotion, as Stone’s tears flow halfway down her cheek and drift toward us through a spaceship’s cabin.

She has almost literally become a stone since the death of her 4-year-old daughter, and Kowalski’s cheerfulness doesn’t dent her indifference. That facade begins to crack when she hears a voice on the radio singing in a foreign language to a child and a dog.

She howls along with the dog, first in a bleakly comic way and then primally, like someone reduced to her lowest point. Then something happens to make her question her lassitude. Does this impulse come from God? Her subconscious? Both religious believers and nonbelievers may be touched by her quandary and her response.

Bullock, always a solid performer, surpasses all her previous work: Her commitment to the part and exploration of its facets couldn’t be surpassed by any of the great actresses. Clooney has less to do and relies on the genial, slightly cocky attitude he projects so well.

To Cuarón’s credit, the human dilemma remains in the forefront of the narrative; visual wonders enthrall but don’t distract us or overshadow the story.

And even those effects have a quality that goes beyond dazzlement. At one point, Stone watches fiery debris hurtle through the sky; the pieces could kill her, yet their incendiary glory can’t be denied. Outer space, like so much of life, can be beautiful and terrible at the same time.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

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