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Gravity ****

Is it worth $15 (3D)? Yes

“Gravity” is astonishing. It’s a mind-blowing, out-of-this-world survival story helmed by the steady and confident director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”), who's one of the boldest and most innovative visionaries working today. This is filmmaking at its highest level.

Set almost entirely in outer space, George Clooney plays experienced astronaut Matt Kowalsky. He’s thoroughly competent at his job and an ideal mentor to Ryan Stone (Bullock), a medical engineer with limited outer space experience. While outside their vessel conducting repairs, debris from an exploding satellite severs Kowalsky and Stone’s communication with Houston (voiced by Ed Harris) and leaves them without a space ship. Tethered together and floating 372 miles above a stark blue earth far below, they must work in unison as they try to survive in the most unsuitable environment for human beings imaginable.

Although the story, written by Cuaron and his son Jonas, is simple, the marvelous visuals are not. The outer space setting – whether the characters are floating in space or inside a ship – is ominous and foreboding, far from anything suggesting user-friendly warmth. This is especially relevant to Stone, who’s not familiar enough with NASA technology to survive on her own. 

Alfonso Cuaron and his cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, spent four and a half years on the project, literally inventing the technology needed to film Bullock and Clooney in outer space. How they did it: A 9x9 cube was built, and the actors were placed on a rig in the center that could balance in different positions. On the walls of the cube were LED screens that projected what the character would be seeing during a given moment, and the actors would react to the projections, with the background behind them to be added in post-production. They would not, thankfully, spin around too often; multiple cameras would capture the action as Cuaron envisioned in pre-production. 

The opening shot alone is enough to take your breath away. A jaw-dropping unbroken 13-minute take introduces us to the characters and the debris that nearly kills them. Simply put, this type of visual showsmanship is remarkable, and is the result of painstakingly exact execution and planning from Cuaron and his production team. Combine that with sound that goes from pulsing the action to eerie silence and a production design that even real astronauts are remarking is “spectacularly good” and you have a movie that successfully hits on every note to which it aspires.

Like Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and Will Smith in “I Am Legend,” Bullock is up to the task of carrying the majority of the movie on her own. Her presence and the briskly moving story (the film is 91 minutes) keep us engaged throughout, in part because her character’s journey is so captivating and we’re rooting so hard for her to survive. And as an aside, give credit to Cuaron and Warner Bros. for casting her: Most astronauts are men and the role easily could’ve been played by a male, but having a female in space may well serve as a positive role model for young women.

It’s hyperbole, but in this case it really is true: Sometimes the stars align, technological capability meets imagination and we get something we’ve truly never seen before. “Gravity” is an example of this cliché come true, and it’s one of the best films of the year.

Did you know?
The film was post-converted into 3D, and is definitely worth it. The 3D adds depth and clarity to the perfectly composed frame.