“Gravity” is ironically titled, since the absence of that force constitutes much of the story’s appeal. Director/screenwriter Alfonso Cuaron, considerably aided by veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and film editor Mark Sanger, attempts to approximate what it must be like to be in space, where the “law” of gravity does not apply. The buzz surrounding its release has been mostly about the technology employed (or created) to render these very special effects. Indeed, it is remarkable, but the actors are no slouch. One of them is all but a lock for an Oscar nomination.
Of the seven-member cast, we only see two, and one of those very briefly. Sandra Bullock, as medical engineer Ryan Stone, controls the point of view. Stone’s a rookie astronaut, a physicist on a mission to repair and enhance the Hubble Space Telescope. At the opening, in a magnificent, apparently continuous 13 minute shot, she’s trying to fix a non-responsive part and battling nausea. Trying to calm her down, veteran space jockey and fix-it man Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, in a rare supporting role) tries to calm her down with jokes, country music, and a generally no-sweat demeanor.
But the situation rapidly deteriorates. Houston (in the voice of Ed Harris) alerts them that a Russian satellite has broken up and the debris is headed for them. Before they can get inside the shuttle, all hell breaks loose and so do they, drifting away into space. Matt’s control — of the jet pack and his own nerves — saves Ryan for the moment, but the shuttle has been rendered useless. Their only hope is to shoot for the nearby International Space Station. (Purists may carp that these two are in different orbits, but hey, it’s a movie!) Still, that only gets them part of the way home, and other problems ensue.
In fact, “ensuing difficulty” is basically the plot of the film, Cuaron continually ratcheting up the tension. A viewer might not become completely involved or suspend disbelief: the tech wizards steal the show over and over, forcing one to ask, “How did they do that?!” Readers of this column — yes, that’s both of you! — may recall that I don’t have much use for 3D movies: the last one I saw was “Avatar,” in 2009. However, Cuaron uses the (literal) in your face technique superbly, for events large — a mass of debris hurtling through space — and small — a single teardrop floating, reflecting the face of the person crying. If these moments detract from the suspension of disbelief, well, maybe it’s worth it.
The sound design is also noteworthy: Glenn and Danny Freemantle’s adroit mix of silence, music, and disembodied voices adds immeasurably to the visible action’s effect. And what effects they are, from the opening shots of the Big Blue Marble miles below the characters to the final moments looking back up at the blue sky.
“Gravity” is rated “Pg-13” for language, violence, and “intense perilous sequences.” It’s one of the most creatively imagined “space movies,” since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” some 45 years ago. Bullock’s multi-layered performance glasses over some unnecessary plot points, as does Cuaron’s economical pacing, a rarity among big buck epics. This one has to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated: don’t miss it.