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Cinema Signal: There's some cheating going on with the story details but this is a visual sensation. Green light. Go! MOBILE: MOBILE version |
. "Gravity"

What better title than "Gravity" when you're simulating the lack of it; but, as simulations go, you had better buckle up before this film starts rolling. This is astounding, cutting edge movie making which is rated PG-13 because of "intense perilous sequences." It's not so much that that's true -- it's that the film is alive with extraordinary visual realism.

Veteran Astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney, "The Ides of March") is circling space shuttle Explorer on a carefree jaunt seated on his Manned Maneuvering Unit (in layman's terms, thruster pack) while medical specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, "The Proposal"), more or less enjoying her first shuttle assignment, is perched on the end of the shuttle's remote manipulator arm trying to fix a circuit board problem on the Hubble Space Telescope while in contact with Mission Control.

But, suddenly, the objective voice from Houston (Ed Harris, "Appaloosa") changes the subject with an advisory that a Russian anti-satellite test has exploded and is sending masses of debris hurtling into space, but should pose no threat to our Explorer team at Hubble. But, when the orbits are recalculated, and it appears that the debris field is coming toward them, Dr. Stone's Hubble mission becomes something way beyond a scientific endeavor.

Mission Control advises them to immediately shut down all activity and return to the safety of their craft. But she delays and gets caught on the end of the Manipulator when the shrapnel of the Russian space experiment arrives and shreds the shuttle. The new space junk traveling at extreme velocity, has eliminated any form of safety.

The good news is that our space pair is physically uninjured. They tether themselves together but the arm gets hit and she goes tumbling in dizzying, swings, at the mercy, now, of uncontrollable forces. The former soundless calm has turned into waves of horror as the projectiles make their first pass. The temporary return to calm brings the realization that the rest of the crew and the ship is lost. Kowalski decides that their best gambit is to make for the International Space Station (ISS), a mere 100 kilometers from their position and a 90 minute trip at thruster speed.

By this time, director Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men") and his team of visual geniuses have given us an idea of what human movement in weightlessness is like and the true mission of the drama is disclosed to be a saga of self-preservation in inhabitable space where destruction is everywhere on an orbital path. The aim of an eventual return to earth alive is a case of harrowing suspense where hope grows more and more distant with each rotation.

Cuaron uses the slow but steady passage through space to the ISS to establish the human dimension. Ryan fills this void and gains sympathy by talking about her young daughter's death in a school accident.

It's difficult to say whether the story is a means of conveying what's possible in the way of grand-scale camera/art work with special effects, or the other way around. But, there's no question about the film's ability to freeze you in your seat as you watch an extra-terrestrial adventure the like of which we haven't seen before. It's fearsome and dream-like in equal proportion, and deals with mortality and sacrifice. Cuaron dedicated four and a half years of his life to achieve this cinematic rush of a film.

He wrote it with his son Jonas, edited it with Mark Sanger and produced it with David Heyman. What was left to do? Plenty. Among the crafts, the precision lighting was the work of Cuaron's Director of Photography from "The Children of Men," Emmanuel Lubezki; production design was by Andy Nicholson, and "set" decoration by Rosie Goodwin. Jany Temime took care of the spatial costumery that seems inspired by NASA (though not entirely accurate) and the tension-inducing musical score was the work of Steven Price.

Credits aside, the accomplishment is a rendering of space in all its magisterial and exotic grandeur -- not only from what we've seen in NASA footage and stills, but in the context of human presence, devastation, utter loneliness and salvation. It is not advised that anyone contemplating a trip to space see this film prior to blastoff!

The depiction of humans moving in space, where there is no up or down as far as movement is concerned, is depicted with enough precision to impress NASA scientists who have seen the film. It forces one to wonder how the effect was so perfectly attained. Actors, we know, don't move that way -- unless they're underwater. But, the medium of water can't explain how Cuaron and company did this. So, how?

In director Cuaron's own words, in an interview for Wired, he described it this way:

"We had to do the whole film as an animation first. We edited that animation, even with sound, just to make sure the timing worked with the sound effects and music. And once we were happy with it, we had to do the lighting in the animation as well. Then all that animation translated to actual camera moves and positions for the lighting and actors."

This is where one of the most overused words in the English language in the early 21st century may be aptly applied: Awesome!

In addition, the 3D was accomplished with a technique called "Stereoscopy" and post conversion, and is as vital a part of the imagery as most sci-fi movies. It is certainly the most extended and realistic, and the application of that standard of sci-fi movie-making is a pleasure to watch.

The other issue that arises is for the perfectionist crowd. Though most of us wouldn't know it, stretches of realism are afloat all over the place. While it's evident that a great deal of scientific study and consultation guided Cuaron, he is, after all, a storyteller. Liberties were taken to make the fantasy work, and Cuaron admits it.

One example of bending the facts is that the orbits of the ISS and the Hubble's are so different, that reaching it with a Manned Maneuvering Unit isn't possible. But, I think most who see this film will consider such distinctions besides the point, and I agree. I'll take the shattering effect of the yarn. This is make-believe; it isn't a documentary.

Until such time as commercial space travel becomes an affordable reality for the masses, "Gravity" is your ticket to the best available immersion into the airless space surrounding our planet. You'll be awed and mesmerized as Bullock gasps for air and Clooney faces mortality.

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~~ Jules Brenner

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Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski working on the Hubble Space Telescope.

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