The crew of space shuttle Explorer is on a (uh-oh) routine mission to install a new communications panel on the International Space Station. It's the first mission for Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and the final one for veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). On a space walk to install the panel, the team engages in some witty banter with Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris in a clever wink to both "The Right Stuff" and "Apollo 13"). It's all seemingly by-the-numbers, but the playfully banal dialogue belies the sheer audacity of the visuals. We seem to truly be in space. The actors, the shuttle, the space station and Mr. Cuarón's camera appear weightless, able to drift in 360 degrees in bravura uncut shots. It's enough to either send you running to apply for the space program, or for an air sickness bag. It's that good.
Tragedy strikes when a scuttled Russian satellite sets off a chain reaction that threatens the crew's lives, leading to a desperate fight for survival in the vacuum of space. The script, by Mr. Cuarón and son Jonás, does an admirable job keeping the story moving in an environment with no friction (the threat of an orbiting field of deadly debris is a stroke of genius), but even in the vastness of space the success of the film rests on only two stars.
Mr. Clooney, for his part, is almost too comfortable in his role. I don't want to say he isn't trying here - it's possible that this all just comes too easily to him - but his nonchalant "Clooneyness" detracts from the character. To his credit, he's easily believable as a veteran space jockey, but it's hard to take him seriously when everything's a joke. And does he really not think to point out that, when oxygen levels are at 1%, you should stop gabbing??
But this is Ms. Bullock's movie and it's hard to think of an actress that could carry it so well, even in a weightless environment. She's obviously in great physical condition, and she leans hard on the everywoman quality that has served her so well since "Speed". It's simply easy to root for her, even when she's given overly-expository dialogue ("Ok, let's try this button...").
What "2001" showed us - aside from the fact that we have not lived up to the promise of 1968's space program - was that, in a space movie, less is more. All Mr. Kubrick needed on the soundtrack was breath and a heartbeat. What "Gravity" could have used was more of less. Too often, the film goes for easy jolts and swelling strings to keep the audience interested. It's unnecessary in a film as groundbreakingly beautiful as this one.
And speaking of beauty: see "Gravity" in 3D, as it was intended, and with Dolby Atmos sound, if possible. This is a film that will certainly be used as a reference for Audio/Video systems in the near future. It is the very definition of Big Picture Big Sound.
|Summary||If you can get past the heartstring-tugging, the amped up soundtrack, and George Clooney's relentless Clooneyness, this stunning space saga is the very reason we go to the movies.|