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"GRAVITY"
(2013) (Sandra Bullock, George Clooney) (PG-13)


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QUICK TAKE:
Dramatic Thriller: Two astronauts must contend with ending up stranded in orbit when debris destroys their spacecraft, kills the rest of the crew and cuts off communication back to Earth.
PLOT:
Ryan Stone (SANDRA BULLOCK) is a mission specialist onboard a space shuttle trip to repair the Hubble Telescope. Out on a spacewalk to do that work, Ryan -- who only has six months of training -- must not only contend with motion sickness due to the lack of gravity, but also the constant yammering of commander Matt Kowalski (GEORGE CLOONEY) who's on his last mission before retiring and is flying about using a jetpack. Their work is interrupted with a sudden abort command from Houston control, all due to debris from a destroyed Russian satellite and a resultant chain reaction with other orbiting equipment now headed their way.

Before they can get inside, the debris strikes the shuttle, instantly killing the rest of the crew, all while sending Ryan spinning out of control. Matt manages to rescue her, but with all communication back to Earth now lost, the two are on their own. With her oxygen levels decreasing and his jet pack about out of fuel, they attempt to make a perilous journey to the International Space Station where they hope they can use its escape pod to return back to Earth.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
At the ripe old age of five, I saw man walk on the moon for the first time. While I'm sure I didn't fully appreciate the nature and symbolism of the event at that age, it certainly made an impression on me. And that clearly was demonstrated when I watched the 1969 movie "Marooned." I don't recall if that was in the theater (movies played for months back then) or a later TV broadcast, but I definitely remember being extremely concerned about the Apollo astronauts who ended up stranded in space, with little likelihood of being rescued.

What's amazing is that in the intervening 44 years -- and unlike what occurs in the realm of space based sci-fi films --there still aren't rescue rockets at the ready to blast off and save astronauts who might run into some sort of similarly dire predicament. Thus, back in the Space Shuttle era, they were pretty much on their own, while those on the International Space station might have an escape pod, but otherwise have to wait until a regularly scheduled flight returns their way.

All of which came to mind upon seeing the amazing trailers for "Gravity." After all, they showed George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as Shuttle astronauts where something catastrophic occurs and Bullock's character ends up spinning out of control on some damaged equipment before releasing her tether and tumbling off into the darkness of space. While impressive enough on its own, what had me most interested in the film was the fact that it was being written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the filmmaker responsible for the incredible "Children of Men" as well as the likes of "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" and "Y Tu Mama Tambien."

My only concern from the previews was whether that depiction of catastrophe was the so-called "money shot" and how Cuaron and his co-writer son Jonas Cuaron would tell the rest of the tale to fill up the film's 90-some minute runtime. Would there be flashbacks to time back on Earth or earlier in the mission? Would time be split between showing Clooney and Bullock's characters as well as those back at Mission Control trying to come up with a solution, a la "Apollo 13?" Or would Bullock's character experience some sort of metaphysical head and/or soul trip as occurred at the end of "2001: A Space Odyssey?"

Then again, assuming there was enough air in her suit, the damaged shuttle or possible another craft, the film could go the simple self-preservation route of the upcoming "All is Lost" (Robert Redford alone at sea in a sinking sailboat) or the older "Cast Away" or even the more temporarily similar "127 Hours" (where James Franco played the hiker stuck in a ravine by himself). Instead of heading in any of those directions, the filmmaker has opted to create a roller coaster type ride that's actually quite simple and pretty much straightforward in its construction and deployment.

After a cool, multi-minute introductory sequence featuring the leads' characters out on a spacewalk doing some repair work on the Hubble telescope, space debris from a destroyed Russian satellite (and other such equipment that it has hit) rips by them and into the shuttle. I didn't time the sequence, but let's just say it's a number of some of those most intense minutes you'll spend in a dark theater. After that, the two lone survivors attempt to get to safety, something easier said than done, especially with the orbiting debris making a few return visits that further complicate matters.

From a technical standpoint, the film is nothing short of outstanding, particularly if seen on a big IMAX screen in 3D. Visual special effects have come a long way since "Marooned" and while I obviously have no basis for a direct comparison, I'd have to argue that the film's visuals and the way cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki moves the camera around is about as close as most of us will ever get to experiencing what it's like to be in space.

The shots of Earth slowly moving down below the action are amazing, while the peril-filled action scenes and effects are something to behold. Had the seats in the theater moved along with the action, this would be akin to a high tech simulator ride experience. The various sound effects (including lots of panicked breathing and hyperventilating) only add to the terror and tension of the moment.

Of course, Cuaron wisely opts to slow the pace down from time to time in order not to exhaust the viewer. Unlike the upcoming Redford film that's nearly void of dialogue, however, the filmmaker uses those moments where Bullock is alone to let her talk. While it's essentially a one-way conversation (as Houston can't hear her due to all communications being down while brief radio contact back down to Earth features a Chinese speaker where neither understands the other), that allows her character to chat away, and some bits of that feel a little contrived (and really could have been jettisoned with no ill effect).

That also includes a revelation about a past tragedy in her life that could have played out in an interesting way had the film headed in a more philosophical direction, but that doesn't occur. The same holds true for a surprise development that I won't spoil but could have turned this into something far deeper and meaningful than just a thrill ride.

But what a white-knuckle ride it is. While some may complain that it gets repetitive having one bad thing after another occur to Bullock's character (even when you think everything has been resolved), I found it all quite exciting and suspenseful, with believable and engaging performances from the leads who you truly will believe are in space (yes, it's that convincing).

Granted, some of that has to do with the IMAX experience, so it will be interesting to see how this eventually plays in the much smaller home TV environment where the sense of visual awe and overwhelm will be removed from the equation. Thus, I'd suggest if you're going to see it, do so on as big a screen as possible. That way, you'll feel like you're right there with the protagonist simultaneously experiencing the awe and terror of being in space. "Gravity" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 30, 2013 / Posted October 4, 2013


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