By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Advisory: Arrange to take in a lighthearted comedy immediately after seeing director Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” a tension-filled space adventure like nothing in recent memory. You will need said antidote. My stomach has just stopped churning enough for me to write this review.
Granted, the two chili dogs imbibed just before showtime probably didn’t help (maybe I should have stuck with the mustard and kraut). But nay, the blame lies squarely with the infinite nothingness this cutting edge adventure yarn forebodes should its principals fail to rescue themselves when their space shuttle mission goes awry.
Save for some control center voices down in Houston, there are essentially just two players: Sandra Bullock as medical engineer Ryan Stone, and George Clooney as seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski. Both actors are simply aces, able to quickly build their characters and firmly earn our empathy within the confined parameters of their emergency circumstances.
Give them extra credit for fashioning these personae in virtual vacuums, their surroundings ultimately painted around them in one of the most splendiferous utilizations of the gizmos and gadgets now available to filmmakers. Making it seem like he’s doing more with less, Mr. Cuarón melds the thespic and technical in a sublime, purposeful synergy. If some other film wins the Oscar for visual effects, well then, that movie I’ve got to see.
There is a grandeur in the film’s simplicity, its pungent script making points all over the solar system with an economy of words. Indeed, there’s a soupçon of space travel jargon I simply didn’t grok. But I let it slide, trusting it legit in light of the production’s overall integrity.
And then there are all those control buttons, even more daunting than the obscure knobs and slides on a rental car in the Albany airport at midnight…in the rain. Push has come to shove and Bullock’s brilliant doctor has to familiarize herself with them real fast.
Pertaining to one aspect of the crisis procedures they must employ, astronaut Kowalski asks if Dr. Ryan hadn’t performed said exercise in training. Indeed she did, and crashed the simulator each time. Yipes!
We move closer to seat’s edge and, in a brief meditation, both marvel at the nail-biting condition in which we’ve become embroiled, and question why we need this aggravation in the first place. But so much for one second of sensible respite, for we must hasten back to the adventure, spinning in space aimlessly with our fellow survivalists, headed for parts beyond the unknown.
Courtesy of Sandra Bullock’s ability to convince us that she is both the girl next door and an extraordinary human being, her plight in “Gravity” tugs at the heartstrings. There’s a reason the very serious scientist has taken on the dangerous mission, the semi-secret motive coaxingly extracted by Mr. Clooney’s antithetical, anecdote-spouting space traveler extraordinaire.
Remember, the appeal of science fiction from its very inception can be attributed to its glibly veiled metaphoricalness, the ability to comment on society by drawing parallels in different times, dimensions and worlds. Isn’t that so, Mr. Spock? Well, here the ever flippant Kowalski teaches a lesson in living life to the fullest, even if the end is only hours, or maybe even just minutes, away. He is both built-in comedy relief and philosophical embodiment of humanity’s raison d’etre.
That the message is engagingly wrapped around the high wire plot in this Swiss watch of a film adds to the exhilaration and awe. We can’t help but appreciate the seamless flow of action and contemplation while at the same time are caught up in its cliffhanging disquietude. Perhaps you’ve seen the advertisements. I mean, let go of that tether and hey, there’s no net in outer space.
OK, so there’s a flaw or two, most of them trifling liberties that only the most curmudgeonly of nitpicking sci-fi dilettantes will be pressed to blurt. Happily, the biggest stretch of the imagination wins our suspension of disbelief.
Bullock’s Dr. Stone, who I’m thinking of seeing for my next checkup, sells it beautifully. With air supply ever-dwindling, flotsam and jetsam from an exploded Russian missile threatening certain destruction, the quick study rifles through not only Russian, but also Chinese, instruction manuals in order to find just the right lever to flip.
That aside, Mr. Cuarón imposes a mood of stark reality. While scientific breakthrough brought them up there, there is no fantastical magic to save them. Like Columbus and his colleagues in the last great era of exploration, they travel by their wits, bravery and sheer gumption, knowing full well the consequences that make it all so daring and majestic.
Hence, sure to surprise the jaded masses and disprove that grouchy uncle who contends they don’t make ‘em like they used to, this is a very astute piece of filmmaking. It should, at the very least, earn Miss Bullock an Academy Award nomination. However, bearing in mind that rollercoasters, actual or filmic, aren’t for everyone, the butterfly prone shouldn’t climb aboard without considering the full “Gravity” of their decision.
“Gravity,” rated PG-13, is a Warner Bros. release directed by Alfonso Cuarón and stars Sandra Bullock, George Clooney and Ed Harris. Running time: 90 minutes
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