Movie review: Imagery makes ‘Gravity’ more than a movie

SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLEOctober 4, 2013 

GRAVITY

Sandra Bullock turns in one of her best performances as an astronaut faced with disaster in “Gravity.”

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    Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences, disturbing images and brief strong language. Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris. Director: Alfonso Cuaron. Running time: 90 minutes. Theaters: In 2D and 3D at Edwards 22 and Edwards 9 in Boise, Edwards 14 and Edwards 12 in Nampa, Majestic 18 in Meridian.

To talk about “Gravity” is to talk about the visuals. Yet the ways in which “Gravity” represents cinema’s most advanced and intelligent use of 3-D — is to talk about more than how the movie looks. As conceived by director Alfonso Cuaron, the visuals don’t exist in isolation. They are inseparable from the movie’s emotion and meaning.

“Gravity” induces a double effect. We watch and are continually struck by the movie’s beauty and visual grace, while at the same time we pretty much believe what we’re seeing. Indeed, it’s actually possible to watch “Gravity” without it realizing that George Clooney and Sandra Bullock aren’t really in space.

In a long opening shot, you see a man-made contraption hanging in the blackness. There is a white dot next to it, while, in voiceover, you hear Clooney, bantering with mission control. The combination is stark — a vast nothingness contrasted with everything Clooney’s voice has come to mean in terms of humor, sanity and equanimity.

That contrast of the human soul versus the void is with us every second in “Gravity.”

In other films, outer space has seemed romantic, but “Gravity” makes you feel what an awesome, terrible thing it is. There is no sound in space, because there is nothing to carry sound.

At one point, Bullock is sent spinning into the void, and she keeps on spinning, because there’s nothing to stop her, nothing to kick against. That everything that has ever lived should hang suspended in the midst of such emptiness is a realization so daunting and profound that it can turn an atheist into a religious person and a religious person into an atheist. Such spiritually de-stabilizing realities form the undercurrent of “Gravity.”

In terms of story, it’s a disaster film. Lieutenant Kowalski (Clooney) is floating around, telling stories and trying to break the space-walk record, while Mission Specialist Stone (Bullock) is running experiments.

Word comes that a shower of debris is heading their way, and from there “Gravity” piles on a series of calamities. Things happen in slow motion. There are no other people there to witness it — no anything.

If ever a movie demanded the casting of movie stars, it’s “Gravity,” because the audience requires vivid examples of humanity and — as the lead actors are covered up in space suits — we need to feel we know these people. To compensate for no physical expressions, Clooney amps up his personality and puts everything into his voice, and to marvelous effect.

As for Bullock, it’s a role that requires displays of warmth, relief, grief, regret and stark, shrieking terror, and she is up for every moment of it. She plays a woman trying to make her way back to Planet Earth, not just literally, but within her spirit, and she brings to it her familiar and eccentric humanity and a raw and almost painful vulnerability.

See “Gravity” in theaters, because on television something will be lost. Cuaron has made a rare film whose mood, soul and profundity are bound up with its images. To see then diminished would be to see a lesser film, perhaps even a pointless one.

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