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Movie Review: Gravity

Oct. 7, 2013. The theater where I saw “Gravity” was packed with people, packed with human flesh. The heft of the hugh crowd made the house  very hot. And yet, it wasn’t five minutes into the movie when my blood ran cold. The fingers on my right hand soon hurt from the death grip I had on my armrest. Even my legs were weirdly locked, as if subconsciously I was determined not to lose my balance-while I was seated. Such is the experience of “Gravity,” a film so intense it can affect you on a physical level.

The film stars special effects orchestrated by director Alfonso Cuaron. The lead actors are George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. They play astronauts whose mission is interrupted when debris from an exploded Russian satellite destroys their spaceship, leaving them stranded in outer space. If they want to get home, they’ll have to get to the International Space Station without a ship, use a badly damaged escape pod to get to a Chinese space station, and use an escape pod that might not even exist to make it back to Earth. The task would be harrowing enough on Earth if they were just transferring between cars; the disorienting climate of space makes it seem all the more hopeless.

Clooney’s Matt Kowalski is about as experienced as an astronaut can be; he is the person we’d most like by out side in this situation. Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is a very smart version of the rest of us. She has minimal training and experience, and isn’t prepared for the setbacks that occur. Which is to say that she’s scared and stripped of all composure and rationality. I’d call her whiny and idiotic if I blamed her for a second.

Stone gets separated from Kowalski and we’re with her through every desperate, self-doubting moment as she struggles for survival alone. I was unhappy a few years ago when Bullock won an Oscar for “The Blind Side” because I didn’t like the idea of prefacing her name with “Academy Award Winner” before her typical dumb romantic comedies and insipid weepies. Now that I’ve seen “Gravity,” not only do I fully support her title of “Academy Award Winner,” but I can’t think of any other actress I’d rather see win for this year. 

Speaking of Oscars, expect this film to run the technical categories. It has the best special effects I’ve seen since at least “Life of Pi.” Cuaron and his team have clearly taken this opportunity to challenge themselves and the result is a space film with an atmosphere unlike any I’e ever seen before. The actors and set pieces move around beautifully in tranquil scenes and terrifyingly in intense ones (beware: the intense scenes include a lot of spinning and shaking and may give viewers motion sickness). I’m terrible at science, so I don’t know how well some of the film’s incredible elements would hold up in the real world. As it is, the only nitpick I’m confident making is that I don’t think NASA would send up a team of astronauts who are such strangers to one another. 

“Gravity” is the best film of 2013 so far. The performances, effects and script are all impressive and tight. The film threatens to destroy itself for a moment in favor of an implausible twist, but the twist turns out to be a false alarm and we’re all the more grateful that the film didn’t go in this direction. The film poignantly taps into the universal fear of isolation while never looking like it’s cutting corners with its simplicity.

Four stars out of five.