Film review: Gravity is full of breathtaking suspense and solid effects

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (pictured) fight for survival in Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney (pictured) fight for survival in Alfonso Cuarón’s space thriller Gravity.

Calling a movie Newton’s Laws of Motion would probably have the potential audience running for the hills. Imagine it: Director and co-writer Alfonso Cuarón undertakes such an ambitious project, a movie set in Earth’s orbit with characters under constant threat of danger, but no one goes to see it because they think it’s a documentary about physics. So we get Gravity.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) are in space. There are other astronauts, too, but they’ll be dead in approximately nine minutes. This is a pure adventure movie. It’s a wonder the other characters even have names.

Because of something stupid the Russians do with a satellite, there’s suddenly a ton of debris (or more) hurtling toward Stone and the team. The good news is she avoids being killed by the aforementioned debris. The bad news is Stone is left floating through space.

Re-enter Kowalsky, who, along with the help of some jets on his suit, finds Stone and rescues her. Unfortunately, there’s catastrophic damage to their space shuttle. There are also dead crew members floating nearby, and Stone is running out of oxygen.

Worse yet, the nearest space station is damaged enough by the debris that Stone and Kowalsky can’t seek refuge there, or at least not for very long. There’s a Chinese station nearby. That will have to do.

Gravity is pretty shrewd. It gives Stone and Kowalsky disaster after disaster with each worse than the disaster that came before it, and there’s no time to consider the realistic possibilities of such disasters. Gravity has moments of drama that are so intense, you may feel as if your breath is sucked away from you as quickly as Stone’s oxygen supply.

But at some point, it does get to be absurd. Hitting something in space. Bouncing back in the other direction. Grabbing onto something. Fire. Escape pods. Space parachutes. Landing gear. More debris.

Fortunately, Gravity runs about 90 minutes, and there will be plenty of time to decompress afterward. Plus, Bullock’s effortless charisma and big-budget acting chops go a long way.

It’s in the technical department that Gravity really excels. Until now, the best looking space movie has probably been Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even with all the computer-generated images in the world, space has never done quite as well as his models.

Now the bar has been reset. Gravity is seamless, and looks as if it were shot in space, not a studio backlot. The editing, likewise, is seamless. Cuarón took the reins himself with Mark Sanger (who was responsible for the rather showy visual effects in Cuarón’s Children of Men).

Then there’s Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. Lubezki has a habit of shooting big, flashy projects. Sometimes they look great (The Tree of Life), and sometimes they look like big, flashy projects (Children of Men). Gravity, which is no doubt a big, flashy project, is truly impressive. If only its story was at the same standard as its technical components.

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