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Movie review: Gripping ‘Gravity’ tells a survival story in space

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This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows a scene from "Gravity." (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures)

By Sean P. Means

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Oct 03 2013 03:14PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:35PM

It’s hard to call "Gravity" science fiction, because though the action happens in outer space, there’s nothing fantastical or otherworldly about the peril its characters encounter or the emotional stakes they face.

But what director Alfonso Cuarón, who wrote the screenplay with his son Jonás, has envisioned and executed is an astonishingly vivid and frightening realistic tale of survival that bridges the gap between our fascination with the stars and our fear of dying alone.

It’s a routine mission for the space shuttle Explorer. Mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works from the shuttle’s robotic arm to fix something on the Hubble telescope. Meanwhile, astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) tools around in his tetherless spacewalk harness. The voice of Mission Control (Ed Harris, naturally) reports the Russians are destroying a satellite, but the debris shouldn’t come anywhere near Explorer.

Moments later, Mission Control’s warnings become more dire. The pieces of the Russian satellite have caused a chain reaction in orbit, knocking out more satellites and creating a debris field that’s hurtling toward Explorer.

When the debris hits, it’s a catastrophe that leaves Stone and Kowalski alone in space, with no one on Explorer alive to help and no one on Earth available by radio.

As desperate and dramatic as the situation is, the way Cuarón has visualized the disaster is what’s truly compelling. Everything feels filmed on location, as if actually shot in outer space. (The 3-D visuals augment this, and this may be a rare instance where springing for the IMAX screening is worth the price bump.)

The action feels seamless, as if captured by a single camera — even though it’s surely constructed by bits and pieces of animation and live-action performance. The camera, controlled by cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki (who collaborated with Cuarón on "Children of Men" and "Y Tu Mamá También"), often shifts on a dime. One second it captures Stone spinning out of control, then locks onto Stone while the background gyrates behind her. The effect is stunning, at once conveying the disorientation of zero gravity and the vast isolation of space.

As dazzling and photo-realistic as the effects are, the humanity of the two performances carries the film’s emotional force.

Bullock, usually onscreen alone, bears the major load, smartly underplaying Stone as she applies her scientist’s analytical skills and keen survival instincts to a seemingly impossible problem. Clooney, in the smaller role, is charming as the self-assured space jockey, and his reassuring humor gives the movie a needed dose of lightness.

"Gravity" is, in the end, a perfect melding of the technological and the emotional. The precision of the effects allows the viewer to take the outer-space locale for granted, and the depth of Bullock’s performance puts the focus where it belongs — on the intensely universal story of a human being going to heroic measures just to get home.

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