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Watching Stuff at the Movies: "Gravity"

By Rich Heldenfels Published: October 2, 2013

The "story" of "Gravity" is very simple. Two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) are working in deep space when a shower of debris damages their vessel too much for them to leave. The rest of the movie then consists of their efforts to get back on the ground The narrative is almost spartan; there is no display of their lives before going into space, and there are no scenes of what Mission Control in Houston is doing about the astronauts are stranded. Bits of conversation tell us about the main characters' past -- Clooney is a veteran on what appears to be his last mission, Bullock is a space rookie -- but even those pieces are revealed almost as asides to the central issue: Can they get back? Call it "The Odyssey," call it a western (with space as an actual, final frontier). The adventure has its complications but it is far from complex. And it is swiftly told; in this age of overlong epics, it runs about 90 minutes.

But on that slender peg s hung an intensely focused and often beautiful movie. directed by Alfonso Cuaron, with cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and production design by Andy Nicholson. (The images of space, and the use of 3D, are spectacular.)

The lack of a prologue adds to the intensity, especially for trailer-watching people who know where this is going. As the astronauts go about routine business in space, we wait for something to go wrong.

But then the intensity piles higher as more things go wrong. Space is now a somewhat crowded place, the movie demonstrates, with satellites and shuttles and the International Space Station. It is an open range for anyone who can get there --  U.S., Russians, Chinese -- and they all know each other's technology and even the color-coding of manuals.

It is also a place of vastness, various way stations liike ranches or pony-express stops, and silence; the soundtrack does a fine job of reminding the audience that even massive explosions in an airless domain have no sound. Music by Steven Price further underscores all that you do not hear. And you cannot get from one place to another without air to breathe -- much the way crossing Old West deserts demanded water.

I do not want to overstate the frontier comparisons, however evident they may be, because the movie also echoes some of our old screen ideas of space. There's a point where Bullock, floating weightlessly, recalls an image from "2001," and the voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, who played a similar role on "Apollo 13." "Gravity" expects to be judged next to other space epics, indeed invites the comparisons, so sure is it of the quality and richness of its own cinematic experience.

And I kept thinking, even in moments of great suspense, how incredible is the look of the film: the reflections of images on helmets, the detail of floating objects, the way light affects skin tones, the shifts from dark emptiness to colorful constructs, the fragility of great structures when battered by cosmic forces,

As Bullock and Clooney maneuver, Earth is an almost constant picture in the background, continents looking like bas-reliefs, all designed to remind us of how far from home and safety they are. And that just adds to their concern, and our building fear.

For  -- in pointed contrast to Kubrick in particular -- "Gravity" has an emotional component that drives it. Bullock especially has to fight her fear, a fear that among other things can eat up her precious air supply. Clooney is the contrasting cool customer, but it is Bullock in whom we invest, because she is us, let loose in the unknown. She also gives a terrific performance. And it is service of a marvelous movie. I did object to one relatively minor scene late in the movie but overall I was transfixed.

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