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'Gravity' thrills with visual grace

Mick LaSall, Houston Chronicle
Published 3:01 pm, Thursday, October 3, 2013
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'Gravity'

Rated PG-13: for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language

Running time: 90 minutes

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To talk about "Gravity" is to talk about the visuals. Yet to talk about those visuals - and the ways in which "Gravity" represents cinema's most advanced and intelligent use of the 3-D process - is to talk about more than how the movie looks. As conceived by director Alfonso Cuaron, the visuals don't exist in isolation, and they're not intended to make viewers stand off to the side and say, "Wow, great special effects." They are inseparable from the movie's emotion and meaning.

So "Gravity" induces a double effect. We watch and are struck by the movie's beauty and visual grace, while at the same time we pretty much believe what we're seeing. Indeed, it's possible to watch "Gravity" without it ever occurring to you that George Clooney and Sandra Bullock aren't really in space. The illusion is so complete that you may forget to be impressed.

In a long opening shot, you see a man-made contraption hanging in the blackness. There is a white dot next to it, while, in voiceover, you hear Clooney, as an astronaut, bantering with mission control. The combination is stark - a vast nothingness contrasted with everything Clooney's voice has come to mean in terms of humor, sanity and equanimity.

That contrast is with us every second in "Gravity," the human soul versus the void. Is one bigger than the other? Does one matter in the face of the other? … And then the dot moves closer, and we see that it's Clooney, maneuvering through space with a jetpack.

In other films, outer space has seemed romantic, but "Gravity" makes you feel what an awesome and terrible thing it is. There is no sound in space because there is nothing to carry sound.

At one point, Bullock is sent spinning into the void, and she keeps on spinning because there's nothing to stop her, nothing to kick against. That everything that lives and everything that has ever lived should hang suspended in the midst of such emptiness is a realization so daunting and profound that it can turn an atheist into a religious person and a religious person into an atheist. Such spiritually inspiring and destabilizing realities form the undercurrent of "Gravity."

In terms of story, it's a disaster film, beginning on just another average day on the job. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is floating around, telling stories and trying to break the space-walk record, while Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) is running scientific experiments.

Word comes in that a shower of debris is heading their way, and from there "Gravity" piles on a series of calamities. But these are calamities taking place in space, so they have a unique quality: Things happen in slow motion, and so there are no other people there to witness it - and no mountains, and no trees, and no anything.

The visual splendor of "Gravity" is more than a matter of execution but of imagination. We see pearls moving toward us, shaking and forming into a circular shape - only to realize these are human tears in a weightless environment. In another moment, a partial, upside-down vision of Earth is reflected in the glass of Clooney's helmet. Such images are more than graceful. They impart grace.

If ever a movie demanded the casting of movie stars, it's "Gravity" because the audience requires vivid examples of humanity and - as the lead actors are covered up in spacesuits most of the time - we need to feel we know these people. To compensate for what he can't express with his face and body, Clooney amps up his personality and puts everything into his voice. Yet will people realize the skill and strenuousness behind this seeming effortlessness? I imagine many will think it's just Clooney being himself and not acting at all.

As for Bullock, it's a role that requires displays of warmth, relief, grief, regret and stark, shrieking terror, and she is up for every moment of it. She plays a woman trying to make her way back to Planet Earth, not just literally, but within her spirit, and she brings to it her familiar and eccentric humanity and a raw and almost painful vulnerability.

See "Gravity" in theaters because on television something will be lost. Alfonso Cuaron has made a rare film whose mood, soul and profundity is bound up with its images. To see such images diminished would be to see a lesser film, perhaps even a pointless one.

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