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1) It’s not so much a movie as an all-consuming, mindblowing cinematic experience.
Director Alfonso Cuaron’s cinematographer and visual and sound effects teams have created an immersive 3D spectacle with few parallels in the history of moviemaking. Sound like hyperbole? You’ll be hearing a lot more along the same lines, because no film has ever made you feel space in all its awesome, terrible majesty like Gravity.
When Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, playing U.S. astronauts, get caught up in a debris belt and separated from their spacecraft and from one another, you’ll be spellbound by the scale of what they’re up against. When sound effects can’t be deployed (there is no sound in space, although there is plenty of it inside the helmets of the characters and inside the pressurized chambers of the various spacecraft they visit), a magnificently evocative musical score takes over, providing an approximation of what the catastrophic events the astronauts are witnessing might sound like on Earth, or in the imaginations of the overwhelmed characters.
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2) The micro-level detail is nearly as impressive as the thrill-ride aspect.
Though Gravity isn’t one hundred percent scientifically accurate, the set design nevertheless feels, to a non-expert, genuinely convincing. The baffling controls of a Russian space station, the bulkiness of the space suits and even the way bits of random garbage float in the air inside zero-G spacecraft all add to the sense of an eerie, fascinating, beautiful and scary world of otherness.
2001 was the first Hollywood production to make us feel that painstaking research went into the production design, but the overwhelming increase in technical achievement makes 2001 and even Apollo 13 look primitive by comparison.
3) Sandra Bullock is still America’s sweetheart.
While Bullock might not be your first choice to play a brilliant scientist, she remains someone you can’t help but root for even though, for most of the film, we only see a small slice of her face through her helmet. It turns out that Bullock’s familiar sandy voice can, on its own, draw us in and make us pull for her.
As the film goes on and we learn more about her sad back story, our sympathy for her only grows, but Bullock delivers some heartbreaking lines without overly sentimentalizing them, which makes them that much more powerful.
4) It’s action packed, with not a wasted moment.
Some reviewers have called Gravity a balance of artiness and popcorn picture, but in fact it’s far closer to the latter. Mexican director Cuaron (best known for the nightmarish dystopian film Children of Men and for the artful Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) begins the story in space, with the Clooney and Bullock characters already deep into the mission. Only a few minutes go by to get us used to the situation and the two principals before disaster strikes — a disaster that sets a new standard for hellish chaos.
Bullock and Clooney spend the rest of their screen time coping with such traumas as being cut loose from their station, shortness of oxygen, dwindling propellant on their jet backpacks, and even unexpected but amazingly rendered problems such as the difficulty of trying to grab hold of any part of the exterior of a space station while racing weightlessly past it and risking tumbling off into the void.
The film is so engrossing that at the end you’ll be as breathless as if you’d just been on an especially intense amusement park ride. Note to other filmmakers: If Cuaron can take us on such an immensely satisfying journey in 91 minutes, why can’t you?
But the one way Gravity disappoints is:
1) George Clooney is the wrong choice for this film.
You can see what attracted Clooney to the movie: Despite his weird control-freak personality, he decided years ago that he wanted the public to perceive him as the present-day equivalent of a Rat Packer with a chill, detached personality and a ready wit. Alfonso and co-screenwriter and son Jonas Cuaron indulge him by giving his character, a sort of space-station handyman, lots of jokey one-liners and silly stories to tell, but the nonstop wisecracking is completely at odds with the absolute desperation of the situation the astronauts are in. Every time he goes for the laugh, the film wanders slightly off course and decreases in intensity.