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‘Gravity’: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney in a stunning space jam

 
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Two members shuttle crew (SandrBullock George Clooney) are stranded deep space with limited oxygen after their mother ship is destroyed

Two members of a shuttle crew (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) are stranded in deep space, with limited oxygen, after their mother ship is destroyed in “Gravity.”

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‘GRAVITY’ ★★★1⁄2

Ryan Stone | Sandra Bullock

Matt Kowalsky | George Clooney

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Alfonso Cuaron and written by Alfonso and Jonás Cuaron. Running time: 91 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

Updated: November 5, 2013 6:03AM



We know things are going to go from troubling to bad to disastrous to 99.9 percent chance of everyone dying in the amazing space thriller “Gravity,” because if the wheels don’t come off, there’s no movie.

We know Sandra Bullock and George Clooney didn’t actually go on the most expensive location shoot in motion picture history, and they’re not really in space, marveling at the breathtaking sights before disaster strikes and they’re left floating in the darkness with almost zero chance of survival.

We know this, and yet 30 seconds into Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing, 13-minute opening shot, we feel as if we’re right up there in space with two astronauts as they float, twirl, somersault and glide in space.

This is one of the most stunning visual treats of the year and one of the most unforgettable thrill rides in recent memory. You’ll have to remind yourself to breathe during some of the more harrowing sequences. And even when circumstances seem to defy space logic and test our credulity to the cracking point, the life-and-death ballet with all its crazy twists and turns has just enough science behind it to persuade us. OK. I guess that could happen.

All wisecracks and cocky grin and crinkly-eyed looks of assurance, Clooney’s Matt Kowalsky is a veteran astronaut on his last flight, lamenting he’s going to finish just behind a Russian cosmonaut for the most spacewalk hours ever logged.

Not that Kowalsky isn’t enjoying himself. He plays country music (apparently there’s an iPod inside his suit), he tells funny, rambling stories that always begin, “I have a bad feeling about this mission,” and he works his jet packs as if he’s on the most indulgent fantasy-camp vacation ever.

Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is a space rookie — a scientist up here to perform tasks only she can perform. She’s so nervous and anxious, you wonder how she ever made it through the training to get clearance. (When Stone had the controls in simulated emergency situations at NASA, she would crash and burn. Every time.)

Delicate as the mission is, all seems to be fine, until there’s word of incoming space debris — which will probably miss them, but then again, it’s a really good idea to hurry things up and head for home base.

And then all space hell breaks loose, destroying the mother ship and plunging Kowalsky and Stone into the abyss, with communications cut off (they begin each attempt to contact NASA by saying, “Houston in the dark”), rapidly diminishing oxygen supplies and almost no hope to find a way home.

Cuaron’s nimble shot selections, the cinematography from Emmanuel Lubezki, the score by Steven Price and the beautiful special effects provide an atmosphere that goes from dreamlike calm to shocking action time and again. You can’t help but be reminded of classics such as “Alien” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with the advantage of cutting-edge visual effects).

There’s no alien space creature or rebellious computer villain in “Gravity,” but it’s a horror film of sorts nonetheless. The vastness and absolute laws of the universe as an all-encompassing presence allow no concern for the ships, scattered pieces of space debris or tiny floating creatures unnaturally floating about in its midst.

Kowalsky remains calm and matter-of-fact while Stone grows ever more panicked. They bounce around in space, trying to hitch a ride with another craft — or at least find a way to radio their location. More than once, somebody comes within inches of running out of oxygen, becoming untethered or literally exploding.

“Gravity” loses its pull (sorry) only with an overly melodramatic backstory for Stone, and an admittedly brave spiritual theme that feels a bit manipulative and flirts with outright corniness. We’re also taken out of the story when Ryan sheds her spacesuit to reveal butt-hugging shorts and a tight T-shirt. In theaters across the country, moviegoers will be elbowing the person next to them and whispering, “What is she, 49? She’s in amazing shape.”

(I call this the Aniston Effect, in which actresses hit 40 and find reasons to shed most of their clothes so we can see they look better than most women half their age. See Jennifer Aniston in “We’re the Millers” and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Thanks For Sharing.”)

Still. What a piece of work. “Gravity” is sure to garner a slew of technical nominations, and the performances deserve consideration as well. (Bullock’s work is certainly more impressive here than the broad strokes she painted in her Oscar-winning role in “The Blind Side.)

Even though Kowalsky and Stone are almost always in motion, their tethers allowing them maybe half a football field’s length of room to maneuver about, all we see are the faces of these two movie stars — and that’s behind their glass helmets. This is a case where it serves the story to cast actors with enormous reserves of charm and likability. It’s a tribute to the considerable chops of both stars they’re able to convey so much.

Still, the real star of “Gravity” is the camera work. You’ve rarely seen anything like it.

Email: rroeper@suntimes.com

Twitter: @richardroeper



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