Thursday, October 3, 2013

'Gravity' and the loneliness of space

Director Alfonso Cuaron makes us feel as if we're tumbling through space.
Seen from our minuscule perspective, space is a lonely place, a void that leaves us awestruck at its vastness and perhaps terrified about the possibility of its unending lifelessness. At various points in the new movie Gravity, we're made to feel the solitary magnitude of a depopulated universe.

The key word in the previous sentence is "feel." Director Alfonso Cuaron and his technical team have made a movie in which zero gravity becomes the norm. We not only observe what's happening, we experience it in sensorially powerful ways.

All movies do this to an extent, but because Gravity takes place in space -- even with Earth in full view of the movie's orbiting astronauts -- nothing feels typical. We tumble through the movie like an untethered astronaut somersaulting through space. And when things go wrong, the agony is felt more deeply because the astronauts still can see the Earth.

Unlike what happens in many sic-fi movies, the characters are not embarked on a journey to some forbidding planet. They've put a toe in the inky waters of space. No more.

Thematically and for sheer grandeur, Gravity is not the equal of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it rivals that movie in its insistence on creating -- with help from effectively used 3-D photography -- the experience people in space might actually have.

As astronauts, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are first seen working on the Hubble Telescope. Even though they're encumbered by bulky space suits, they're like space babies floating in the amniotic fluids of the universe.

The dialogue in a script by Cuaron and his son Jonas, doesn't try to create poetry; it's unnecessary. We see the poetry, as Gravity offers us looming views of the planet we all call home.

Despite its apparent lack of mystical fervor, Gravity should not be seen as a cinematic amusement park ride, space like you've never seen it before. Cuaron has a simple story to tell, one involving grief and possible renewal.

Clooney's Matt Kowalski is the mission's captain. Clooney tempers the captain's all-business approach with jaunty humor and confidence; he has the poise of a man who has faced danger many times and who knows how to remain unrattled, or at least how to pretend that he's calm.

The two astronauts are threatened when they're bombarded by debris from a Soviet satellite, putting them in the middle of a terrifying shower of flying metal.

At that point, Gravity becomes a story of survival, simple under any other circumstances, but not in this case because everything we see is taking place in space. To further augment the tension, the astronauts lose radio contact with Earth. They're on their own, Robinson Crusoes without the benefit of an island on which to seek refuge.

Bullock spends a lot of time on the screen alone. She's climbing in and out of space suits, at times floating inside a space capsule in her underwear. Humans are a talkative lot, and in moments of isolation and near-panic, Bullock's Ryan talks to herself -- trying to hold steady, reviewing things from her past and working as her own counselor.

Gravity is the kind of masterful movie that stands as a triumph of contemporary moviemaking craft, using sound and the lack of it to great advantage. Cuaron may have made the most astonishingly representative movie of his time, a film in which the technical achievements are unparalleled and entirely intrinsic to the story's meaning.

As an experience that puts you into space, Gravity has few real rivals. We feel unmoored, dislocated and, most of all, vulnerable in the dark beauty of space, Earth glowing in the distance, a beacon of luminosity in an otherwise empty universe.

Most of the time, Gravity, which unfolds over an economical but absorbing 90 minutes, thrives on the intensity of situations that force its characters to react quickly. Every moment seems to involve a life-or-death decision.

In the rare moments when we catch our breath, Gravity gives us productive pause; its setting makes us wonder whether -- like Bullock's Ryan -- we all aren't really talking only to ourselves, even as we reach for the stars.

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