October 04, 2013


I gotta get a better travel agent

Grade: B +
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: George Clooney and Sandra Bullock
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hr. 30 min.

A moment midway through Gravity hints as the transcendent gravitas to which Alfonso Cuarón's film aspires. Seeking shelter inside a space station, a drifting astronaut emerges from a spacesuit as if from a womb. This space baby then slowly curls into a restful fetal position.

Alas, the hope that Gravity would be a cosmic meditation floats away the instant George Clooney’s space-walking king Matt Kowalsky starts reminiscing about the time he spent carousing at Mardi Gras.

Gravity is the story of two stranded space travelers: Kowalsky and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) were part of a shuttle mission to repair the Hubble telescope. Unfortunately, the duo is left adrift after their ship is destroyed thanks to a Russkie mishap that triggers a hurtling field of space debris.

Their only chance at rescue rests in locating a place to crash—no easy task when you're drifting in low Earth orbit. Fortunately, there's the joint U.S.-Russian International Space Station and China's new venture, called Tiangong. The real peril, however, are the obstacles along the journey, from dwindling oxygen and backpack propulsion, to the logistics of grabbing ahold of an orbiter as it whizzes by, to the shrapnel that zips by every 90 minutes.

Cuarón (whose credits include Children of Men and Y Tu Mamá También) presents a breathtaking experience that eagerly embraces pressurized style over largely weightless substance. Clooney’s trademark blitheness is more suited to heist flick called Ocean’s Apollo Thirteen. That leaves Bullock to shoulder the acting payload, and she proves up for the mission. Still, even attempts at character development built around Stone’s prematurely deceased daughter pale in comparison to the more extraordinary predicament at hand.

Gravity’s true star, its most charismatic character, is the digital pallette of its terrestrial backdrop. Whether it’s storm spirals circulating over ocean blue, a continent’s craggy countenance or or the illuminated spider-web of a nighttime metropolis, the ever-changing kaleidoscope is juxtaposed against the celestial peril.

Fittingly, the most hair-raising moments are ones where words don’t matter. The audience feels Stone's helplessness as she spins off into the abyss after the initial shuttle explosion, and later her escalating hypoxia as she tries to reach an oxygenated environment. In space, no one can hear you scream, but the same can't be said for the theater.

In keeping with the airless environment, the director excises out ambient sound, even during explosions, adding to a silent eeriness unfortunately broken by a Steven Price score that should have been jettisoned altogether until the final, climactic descent.

Cuarón tosses in a few knowing allusions along the way. At one point, a Marvin the Martian bobblehead floats across the 3D projection. As the disembodied voice of Mission Control, Ed Harris apparently hasn’t left the post since Apollo 13. And with shorn dark locks and stripped down to skimpy shorts, Bullock at one point resembles conspicuously resembles Alien’s Ellen Ripley.

Parallels have also been posited between Gravity and Ray Bradbury’s short story “Kaleidoscope.” However, one is a story of survival while the other is a paean to mortality. In truth, Cuarón’s film is another entry in the catalogue of films about mankind’s precarious place in the expanse of creation, with a passing nod at the strength of the human spirit. The director handles it all with taut visual aplomb befitting the big screen. But, Gravity gravitates closer to a heady amusement park ride than the oeuvre of Kubrick and Tarkovsky.

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