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Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2013

Gravity

Bullock and Clooney bring star power to space drama

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The immensity of space provides a vast canvas on which to paint the primal human drama of survival against the elements, the urge to live against the relentless claims of death. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play a pair of astronauts whose shuttle is destroyed by space junk—the sort of manmade debris that usually falls harmlessly to Earth, consumed by heat and friction in the atmosphere, but here in massive amounts after a satellite explodes. Great chunks of debris collide with the shuttle and crash into communication satellites, severing the radio contact linking the astronauts with ground control.

Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, a veteran on his final space mission; Bullock stars as Ryan Stone, a medical officer on her first shuttle flight. Their personalities are established quickly through their actions and conversation over tiny transmitters during a space walk. He’s a charmer and a hot dog, jetting around the shuttle like a kid popping wheelies, while she’s tight lipped and serious, intensely focused on her work.

Ryan emerges soon enough as the protagonist and Matt as the inspiring figure, the man who imparts a life lesson in the face of death. Bullock gives Gravity’s memorable performance in the better written of the two roles. Clooney is basically being himself, albeit dressed in a space suit. Face two-thirds obscured by his astronaut helmet, he proffers wise cracks and quips as the deadly shrapnel of an orbital accident hurtles toward them. He disappears into space, literally, leaving the show to his partner. Through his indomitable example, the emotionally sad, brittle Ryan is suddenly endowed with determination against the anger and resignation inherent in her situation.

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men) clearly (maybe too clearly?) has a message on the human spirit to impart, yet Gravity’s draw comes down to its extraordinary special effects, shot in dizzying 3D capable of enhancing the weightless farrago of a space walk-turned-nightmare. When Ryan spins helplessly into the starry darkness without a lifeline, the effect is a cinematic rollercoaster ride with the audience twirling at her side, her helmet’s glass front framing the terror in her eyes. Ryan makes her way in this odyssey to the International Space Station, where a Russian Soyuz capsule, damaged but not totaled by the debris, offers her best hope of returning to Earth. Cuarón includes many good touches, including the Eastern Orthodox icon and bottle of vodka aboard the Russian craft.

Whether all of Gravity’s orbital acrobatics are realistic or even possible is a judgment better left to rocket scientists. What might linger longer in memory are Bullock’s performance, along with those moments of silence when Ryan and Matt and all their works are mere specks against infinity.

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