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Gravity (2013)

Action/Adventure Rated PG-13

Gravity can’t be denied as a landmark visceral experience, even if there are some solid reasons to resist it. Radically immersive and relentlessly breathless, it’s also – to my count – the second film to actually benefit from 3-D (Coraline is the other). See it on the biggest screen you can find.

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, respectively, a pair of American astronauts who are working outside of the safety of their space shuttle when a storm of debris hits, separating them from the ship. The rest of the movie chronicles, in riveting detail, their increasingly slim chance of survival.

Director Alfonso Cuaron, justly admired for the ingenious tracking shots in 2006’s Children of Men, reteams with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki here, and Gravity plays like a feature-length version of one of those sequences from their last film. The camera lolls about in space with such verisimilitude that I found my own head rolling from side to side, in unison. When disaster strikes, we suddenly find ourselves whirling about in distress. (There’s a brilliantly subtle moment when the camera seems to slip from outside of Ryan’s helmet through the glass, so that it eventually takes on her point of view.) Then there are the dramatic wide shots, placing Ryan or Matt in the vastness of space. This is a movie in which every frame has been artfully engineered to make us believe we’re out of this world, and it achieves that in ways that few science-fiction films – not Star Wars, not 2001 – have done.

This is a movie in which every frame has been artfully engineered to make us believe we’re out of this world.

If only the screenplay, by Cuaron and his son Jonas, was as finely calibrated. Gravity excels at outer space, but stumbles when it comes to plumbing the inner space of its two main characters. Very early on, the movie establishes a questionable dynamic between them. Ryan is a medical doctor on her first mission and Matt is the veteran team leader, and so a pattern develops in which he’s either instructing her, correcting her or – most problematically – rescuing her from danger. Now, I wouldn’t have thought to make this a gender issue except that the movie itself repeatedly emphasizes this distinction. “You’re attracted to me, right?” Matt says one of the times he comes to Ryan’s aid. Later he asks, “What kind of name is Ryan for a girl?” The fact that Clooney is in Ocean’s Eleven mode doesn’t help matters.

It’s too bad, really, because Bullock is good here, at least when she doesn’t have Clooney ring-a-ding-dinging around her. In fact, she offers the best bit of performance in the film, which also takes place within its most unforgettable shot. About midway through, after having made it to an air-lock chamber just before her oxygen runs out, an exhausted Ryan removes her space suit while floating in zero gravity, eventually holding herself in a slowly rotating fetal position. With Bullock’s ballet-like movements and the maternal glow of sunlight shining through the chamber’s window, it’s a mesmerizing moment of rebirth.

It’s easy to get lost in such enchanting imagery; certainly there’s no shame in doing so. Yet the visual panache doesn’t entirely gloss over Gravity’s significant story problems. The movie may be dizzying, but it didn’t make me entirely lose my head.