‘Gravity’ is one giant leap in virtuoso filmmaking | 4 stars

Updated: 2013-10-03T21:36:32Z


Special to The Star

Astronomer Carl Sagan famously wrote, “The universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent.”

“Gravity” is one of the first films to depict our universe as the callous beast that it is.

Yet this extraordinary thriller could never be called indifferent in its presentation. Visionary director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) delivers a movie that occurs almost entirely in orbit — not in spaceships, but in actual space. This environment has no sound, air pressure or oxygen. It features radical variations in temperature, from 258 degrees Fahrenheit to 148 below zero.

“Life in space is impossible,” a title card explains.

The rest of the picture’s economical running time is dedicated to further reminding us of that through a relentless — and impossible — fight for survival.

“Gravity” opens with a bravura sequence that is a genuine jaw-dropper. A game-changer. A paradigm of the sheer potency cutting-edge cinema can muster. The 13-minute unbroken shot commences with a view perched high above Earth, looking down on the luminescent planet in all its photo-realistic majesty. Almost imperceptibly, a tiny spot appears. Then fragments of conversation become audible.

This beautiful isolation is interrupted by an American space shuttle and its small team coming fully into view. A spacewalking Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) makes upgrades to the Hubble Space Telescope while veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) zooms around untethered in a prototype jet pack, cracking wise and telling tales Mission Control has heard before. But the jokes are all new to Stone, whose first outing is about to get rudely interrupted.

The intro ranks right up there with “Touch of Evil” or “Boogie Nights” as benchmark examples of how to orchestrate a continuous take — albeit one that is digitally manipulated to achieve this illusion — that sets up the whole story. Cuarón previously incorporated this type of lengthy coordination during a tank battle in “Children of Men” — one of the great sequences of the past decade.

A call comes from Houston to abort the mission. But a hail of space debris (“Now it’s shrapnel,” Kowalsky warns) strands the crew members before they can take action. Communications are knocked out. The oxygen in their suits is limited. Now what?

The film, co-written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás Cuarón, exploits primal fears: burning, freezing, suffocating, drowning and, perhaps worst, dying utterly alone. Yet it’s not just about these external forces. Stone seems mired in a deep pit of solitude even before the tragedy. Her inner demons are gradually revealed through conversations with Kowalsky.

Bullock, a questionable Oscar winner for 2009’s patronizing “The Blind Side,” gives her finest performance in “Gravity.” Always striking the right balance between capable and scared out of her mind, the 49-year-old actress is perfect for the role. And for much of the movie, she’s the only human in sight.

Cuarón utilizes extended closeups of Bullock — at times evoking Maria Falconetti in “The Passion of Joan of Arc” — as frequently as he employs digital sorcery. One scene frames her floating weightless inside a capsule as strands of tubing weave around her body, like an umbilical cord attached to a fetus.

But there’s nothing to compare with the shot of a tear floating away from Bullock’s face in zero gravity. It drifts into the 3D foreground as the background blurs ... until we see her faint reflection in the droplet.

It’s this mix of poignant humanity and virtuoso filmmaking techniques that exemplifies Cuarón’s remarkable venture into space.

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