3.5 stars (out of four)
In Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s spectacular 3D space thriller, the miraculous is immediate and enveloping for those who open their eyes — and minds.
High above the Earth, slowly revealed in widescreen splendor by Emmanuel Lubezki’s intoxicating camerawork, two spacewalking shuttle astronauts defy a vacuum and also expectations.
Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a NASA veteran making his last astral voyage, is overwhelmed by the view of the blue planet below. He’s seen it many times but still can’t get enough of it.
His colleague Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an engineer on her first shuttle mission, is too engrossed in her work to appreciate the scenery. She’s struggling to install a replacement part on the Hubble Telescope and also to hold down lunch — zero gravity doesn’t agree with her.
Routine chatter out of Mission Control suddenly changes to an urgent warning, demanding common focus. A Russian satellite mishap has caused a chain-reaction of orbiting destruction, knocking out communications links as it sends a wide swath of razor-sharp debris towards the NASA shuttle and nearby International Space Station.
As crisis turns to calamity for the astronauts, their slender link to Earth will become increasingly fraught, as they struggle to hold back the eternal chill and silence that surrounds them.
Not since 2001: A Space Odyssey has a film so vividly and realistically transmitted the feeling of being lost in the cosmos.
Together Cuarón (Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá También) and his longtime collaborator Lubezki (who also works with Terrence Malick) make stellar use of advanced filmmaking technology.
They capture the deepest blues of Earth and the midnight hues of space, powerfully affecting the senses with a 3D experience that is far above the norm. Make every effort to see Gravity on an IMAX screen, for maximum impact.
The film also connects on a purely emotional level, with Clooney and Bullock realistically depicting the plight of stranded astronauts facing dwindling oxygen and rescue prospects.
The ear occasionally lets the eye down, but only a little. The dialogue co-scripted by Cuarón with his son Jonas yields to dull stereotypes and head-slapping idiocies.
Clooney’s Kowalski is a wisecracking flyboy halfway between Buck Rogers and Buzz Lightyear; Bullock’s fretful Stone combines past-trauma seriousness with rookie recklessness — would any astronaut outside of a cartoon go “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” while blindly punching control buttons?
A second viewing of Gravity prompts the kinder thought that the dopey dialogue is intended as much-needed levity, just like the laugh we get when a Marvin the Martian doll floats by in one scene. The tension is almost unbearable for most of the film, and some comic relief is welcome and necessary.
But you could watch Gravity with the sound off, which is a thought that initially occurred to Cuarón. Beyond sheer entertainment value — and there’s plenty of that — the film’s deeper meaning is profound appreciation of just how tiny we are in the vastness of the universe and how connected we are to the Earth’s embrace.
Cuarón is out to inspire us and make us believe in miracles. He handsomely succeeds with a story grounded in hard reality and wrapped in heady contemplation of the infinite.
Gravity isn’t sci-fi; it’s a sky high.
Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.