Opens Fri., Oct. 4 at Cinerama and other theaters. Rated PG-13. 91 minutes.
Why are they even offering this movie in non-3-D format? With George Clooney and Sandra Bullock stranded in orbit, menaced by regular bombardments of space debris? With the oxygen running out and no prospect of rescue from Earth? Of course you should spend the extra money on 3-D. That’s not even a decision. You should see it on the biggest possible screen. You should see it at the early shows on Thursday night. Then you should go back and see it again with friends who weren’t savvy enough to preorder Thursday tickets online. It’s that kind of movie.
Back on Earth, Dr. Stone (Bullock) is just the sort of Type A high-achiever who would make her online movie reservations early. Absent a family, she’s entirely devoted to her work, which involves some sort of experiment on the Hubble Space Telescope. We begin the movie outside that orbiting platform, as she and veteran astronaut Kowalski (Clooney) are performing routine repairs. She’s tethered to a giant arm. He’s cavorting about with a jet pack—of course Clooney gets the jet pack—and listening to country music. Kowalski’s cocky, experienced, about to retire; Stone’s the eager newbie trying to prove she’s got the right stuff. She has her chance, and then some, in the astonishing 12-minute opening sequence, seamlessly rendered via CGI by director Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También).
Because there’s no sound in space (i.e., no atmosphere to relay that sound), Stone’s panicked breathing and frantic radio calls provide the human pulse to the terrifying scene, as bullet-speed space garbage cascades upon the shuttle and its fragile crew. (Like sins from the past, decomposing old Cold War satellites have caused the orbiting trash fusillade.) The camera occupies no fixed position. There is no up or down in the frame as it pushes and swoops among the wreckage and flailing astronauts. Scant warning of the disaster comes from ground control in Houston, voiced by Ed Harris, a nice little nod to Apollo 13. With so many satellites down, quips Kowalski, “Half of North America just lost their Facebook.”
Spinning into the void, Stone can’t get her bearings; and the rest of the film consists of her navigating from one problem to the next. If the shuttle is disabled, let’s get to the International Space Station. If no one’s home there, let’s try the Chinese station next door. For all its technical marvels and breathtaking panoramas reflected in Stone’s visor, Gravity is a very compact and task-oriented picture. It’s both space-age and hugely traditional, though with a modern, self-aware heroine who inevitably begins talking to herself—“You gotta be kidding me!”—to fight the loneliness and complain of each new setback. From speeding bus to orbiting space capsule, Bullock is again the everywoman confronted with haywire technology. And her character’s exasperated vulnerability makes for an interesting contrast to stoic, shipwrecked Robert Redford in All Is Lost, due October 25.
As Stone retreats through airlock and bulkhead to find safety, grabbing at latches and lifelines dangling in her 3-D POV, each narrow escape recalls D.W. Griffith and the silent era. She has a bit of sad personal history to share with Kowalski, but otherwise she’s living (barely) in the moment of pure present peril. If one thing isn’t trying to kill her, another thing is. In a marvelously forward-thrusting film that doesn’t need much dialogue or introspection, Stone scores her biggest laugh with an exasperated aside: “I hate space.” Thanks to Cuarón, we know just the feeling.