High Anxiety

Gravity-filmGripping, intense, emotional ‘Gravity’ will put you in orbit

It’s the perfect set-up. A couple of astronauts on a routine mission outside their spacecraft for repairs suddenly find themselves adrift in space, tethered to each other, and no longer in contact with mission control. Where can they go? What can they possibly do?

The variety of answers may surprise you in Gravity, a smart, lean, elegantly composed and utterly gripping edge-of-your-seat thriller from filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Neither sci-fi nor space opera—and far more than simply a star vehicle for appealing headliners Sandra Bullock and George Clooney—Gravity is more like a space procedural in which ordinary people pit their own human ingenuity against ever more incredible and daunting odds. Maybe no one can hear you scream in space, but you should be able to hear audiences gasping over this savvy and surprising thriller all over planet Earth.

Scripted by the director and his son, Jonas Cuarón, the story begins in space. Medical engineer Ryan Stone (Bullock), on her first space mission, is outside the craft in her bulky suit trying to repair a communications link-up to send data back to Houston. Meanwhile, her colleague, veteran mission commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney, looking remarkably like Buzz Lightyear), is on a long tether, cheerfully marching rings around her, trying to beat a Russian cosmonaut’s record for the longest space walk. “You’re the genius up here,” Matt reminds her, “I only drive the bus.”

But things change in a heartbeat when debris from some of the myriad international space stations sent into space and abandoned comes hurtling toward them. The platform she’s on is severed from the ship and Ryan has to unhook herself, free-falling into space. Using his jet packs, Matt is able to track her down, tethering them to each other. But the ship and the rest of her crew are destroyed.

With oxygen in their suits running low, their only hope is to make their way to another station, searching for a shuttle pod to carry them back to Earth. (Who knew there was so much junk in space?) But that’s only the beginning of a taut plot that involves twisted or tangled lines, way more amok debris, derelict stations, shuttle pods that are inoperable, out of fuel, or whose instructions are in Chinese, raging fire, and hallucinations. Cuarón doesn’t waste a single frame, and every one of the film’s 90 minutes counts.

As in that other classic space odyssey, Alien, the narrative keeps viewers guessing by deftly playing around with our expectations, not only what we assume is possible within these limited circumstances, but the kind of plotting we expect from the genre, as well as what we think we know about the “rules” that govern life in space. One key scene begins when a hatch is suddenly wrenched open to oxygen-free space, and yet the astronaut involved is not immediately asphyxiated. But trust the Force; it’s not a mistake and Cuarón knows exactly what he’s doing.

And as if the adrenalin-rush storyline were not enough, the movie is astonishingly beautiful to look at. The outer space vistas with the gigantic sphere of the Earth always hovering in the frame are splendid. Bodies floating through spacecraft interiors are balletic in physical movement, or captured in expressively poetic stillness. It looks as if the entire film were shot at zero-gravity; nothing looks fake or CGI.

But Cuarón’s emphasis is always on the human element. In one astounding shot, when Ryan is free-falling, the camera zeroes in on the reflection of the Earth washing across the outside of her helmet, this way and that, as she tumbles, her terror-stricken face within. Then, seamlessly, the camera eye moves inside her helmet, gazing out past the digital readout to consider the vast nothing of space from Ryan’s viewpoint, and we share her sense of panic and sudden, crushing aloneness.

The actors are terrific. OK, who doesn’t love Clooney? But Bullock is equally impressive, in a physically demanding role (although I’m not sure if the skin-tight boy shorts she wears under her suit are regulation NASA underwear). Still, Bullock’s two virtuoso soliloquies give the movie its beating heart. Awesome on so many levels, Gravity will put you in orbit.

GRAVITY ★ ★ ★ ★ (out of four)

With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13. 90 minutes.

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