by Glenn Lovell
We’re drifting 372 miles above Earth, cocooned in an icy blue darkness, as breathtaking as it is forbidding. It’s the near-past, the last days of NASA’s shuttle program. Two astronauts ‒ Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) ‒ are in the midst of a spacewalk. Stone, a bio-medical engineer, is tethered to the ship, busily replacing batteries on the Hubble Space Telescope; Kowalski, wearing a jetpack, is the old pro on his last mission. He zips around the ship playfully, like a character in a Warner Bros. cartoon.
Ryan, on her first mission, is feeling nauseous; Kowalski cracks, “Huston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.”
When Ryan has trouble loosening a bolt, Kowalski reminds her, “You’re the genius here ‒ I only drive the bus.”
Just another humdrum day in space …
And then disaster strikes in the form of a deadly debris field, caused by a Russian missile blowing up a spy satellite. The shuttle explodes, killing the rest of the crew. Ryan is hurled into space, tumbling head over heel out of control … screaming for help, sucking up precious oxygen. Kowalski, who clearly has the Right Stuff, reassures her that help is on the way.
That’s the amazing opening sequence in Alfonso Cuarón’s long-delayed “Gravity,” available in IMAX, 3D and flat. The nuts-and-bolts scenario, by Cuarón and his son Jonás, takes place in real time or roughly as long as it takes for the debris field to orbit Earth and slam into our heroine again. It’s an arduous journey ‒ the team must spacewalk from the skeletal remains of the Explorer to the evacuated International Space Station. Will they make it? Who will survive? Can Cuarón, known for “Y Tu Mamá También” and the dystopian masterpiece “Children of Men,” hold our attention with a backdrop that is at once vast and elemental?
In terms of old-fashioned, cliffhanger thrills, “Gravity” leads the pack this year. It plays like an extended version of the “Open the pod-bay doors, HAL” sequence in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But unlike the Kubrick masterpiece, this new film is less sci-fi than science speculation. Despite what some nitpicking experts have had to say, much of what transpires could happen on a very bad day in space. The Cuaróns have done their homework. The hardware (sufficiently cluttered and utilitarian) looks as authentic as anything in “Apollo 13,” and the languorous zero-gravity effects outdo everything that has gone before.
Were “Gravity” just about a deep-space rescue, it would quickly become humdrum, even at a compact 90 minutes. Thankfully, it’s about a lot more, such timeless concerns as faith, self-awareness … and letting go of excess baggage. These more existential elements give this film the spiritual heft of a Terrence Malick parable in outer space.
GRAVITY ✮✮✮✮ With Sandra Bullock, George Clooney. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; scripted by Alfonso and Jonás. 91 mins. PG-13 (for slight profanity, intense action sequences)