‘Gravity’ reaches new heights in visual filmmaking

Photo via impawards.com
Photo via impawards.com

4 1/2 of 5 stars

Director Alfonso Cuarón’s first feature since 2006’s “Children of Men” is stunning to behold. “Gravity” is a movie that is so well shot at times it seems like the finest documentary footage you’ve ever seen.

In space, new astronaut Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, works on the Hubble telescope alongside Mike Kowalski, played by George Clooney. Kowalski is on his last mission and zips around testing equipment for NASA with typical Clooney charm entertaining ground control, a familiar Ed Harris from “Apollo 13” who apparently never left the NASA control room.

Kowalski jinxes the whole thing by repeatedly telling mission control “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” It, of course, turns out all too true.

Debris from a Russian satellite whips around the Earth’s orbit destroying everything in its path catching the astronauts on a space walk. Quickly the film becomes a struggle for survival in the most unforgiving environment humankind has known.

The film is a visual spectacle earning praise from James Cameron, the director who last set the CGI bar with “Avatar.” Cuarón’s picture required new technology to create the realistic marvel that shines on the big screen. An amazing single take shot lasting more than 13 minutes opens the film bringing the small shuttle and its crew into view over Earth.

And it’s a breathtaking view. As the astronauts pause to appreciate the Earth, its surface appears peaceful, the same way space looks from the ground.

For all its atmosphere, “Gravity” has problems. The dialogue and plot, written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, rely on tried and true contrivances.

The characters are as predictable as their dialogue. Kowalski is a cheeky veteran that Clooney plays charmingly, but his continued nonchalance as the disaster unfolds is a bit off-putting.

The deeper psychological battle occurs in Stone who has suffered a trauma back home in Lake Zurich, Ill. For all the awe inspiring visuals and action going on around the words, the dialogue between the Stone and Kowalski remains flat.

But, much like Avatar, the star in “Gravity” is the breathtaking visuals. Stone’s story becomes more of a visual journey, making the dialogue superfluous as the thriller turns into one of rebirth with incredibly effective spectacle.

The film is great despite its faults, in that it’s not really about the dialogue. A silent film with music but the same visual content would conceivably been just as good, if not better. In fact, its soundtrack was the film’s other strength, pulling all the right strings and adding a dimension that excites, calms and inspires.

Still, Cuarón created something beautiful to behold and wonder at as the astronauts face the joys and perils of being in zero-g.

In 3-D IMAX Stone’s protective space suit becomes absolutely claustrophobic to both the character and a breathless audience as she runs out of oxygen. The spacecraft becomes a prison that paradoxically traps and protects her from the emptiness of space, leaving the audience in awe. This reminds you what IMAX was made for.

If you’re going to see this movie, see it while it’s in theaters. Settling for anything less will lessen the experience and spectacle. Outside the theater, without the big screen and state of the art sound system, the movie might just fall back to Earth. Yet within the powerful scope of an IMAX theater with its towering screen and sound, reaches new heights of visual beauty in film.