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Zimbio Review - Extraordinary 'Gravity' is Like Nothing You've Ever Seen

(Warner Brothers)

Long story short: Someday soon, it'll be small talk when someone mentions they orbited Earth last week. But for now, while we wait, we have Gravity. See it, ideally in 3D.

Gravity will remind you of: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Solaris, Apollo 13, Cast Away, Alien

Review: There's never been a movie that recreates what it's like to be in outer space quite like Gravity. Co-writer/director Alfonso Cuarón's long-gestating follow-up to the brilliant Children of Men is worth the wait. He's succeeded in doing what no sci-fi filmmaker ever has. He doesn't venture to the far corners of the universe like Star Wars or Star Trek. He doesn't probe the vast depths of the mind through the metaphor of space like 2001 or Solaris. Instead, Cuarón constructs a veritable thriller that looks so real it's unreal and the void is the villain.

The film opens in space in a mesmerizing first sequence. Three astronauts float outside their shuttle working on the Hubble Telescope. The novice Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works tentatively, the veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) supervises, and the third, Shariff (Paul Sharma), bounds around like a kid in a candy store. This is routine stuff. Astronauts conduct space walks like this all the time above Earth, but today something goes wrong.

The Russians have shot down one of their own damaged satellites, causing a chain reaction that accidentally takes out other communication satellites in the area. Stone and Kowalski lose touch with Mission Control but they have more pressing matters. The debris from the explosion is heading straight for them. In no time, it tears through the shuttle, sending the astronauts flying and killing the rest of the crew.

The camera dips and dives, following Stone as she's sent head over heels into the dark of space. We hear Kowalski's voice in her helmet urging her to give her location. We see what Stone sees, Earth flying above and beneath as she tries to stop her momentum from carrying her any further. Her breathing overwhelms the scene, recalling a horror film. Dr. Stone is going to die in the scariest way possible, alone in outer space. Luckily, Kowalski manages to snag her and tether himself to her. But the danger is just beginning. The shrapnel is whipping its way around the Earth and will cut through them again in 90 minutes. Oxygen is low and time is running out.

This first action sequence is simply astounding. Cuarón and Director of Photography Emmanuel Lubezki film it all, 17 minutes, in one unbroken take that enhances the reality of the scene. Shot in 3D, it really deserves to be seen in the theater where the action happens all around you. Satellite shards zoom past the astronauts like stock cars, eviscerating everything in their way while ripping the shuttle to shreds. The commotion is frantically beautiful, crystallized like never before on film. The anarchy of the incident stands in stark contrast to the fluidity of the astronauts' movements just minutes earlier. The lack of gravity is a constant presence that informs every shot. It can be beautiful and it can be horrifying.

Gravity stands alone as a startling new vision of space horror. The genre typically features action that happens indoors. Alien, Apollo 13, The Right Stuff—all stay away (for the most part) from the challenge of dealing with zero gravity. This makes Gravity unique. It ambitiously tackles the reality of movement in a gravitational crisis while conveying the dread of being utterly alone and helpless. And it does all of this without any of the recognizable genre elements we're so used to. Stone and Kowalski aren't attacked by aliens or seized by space dementia. They're innocent victims of an accident that seems entirely plausible, which, of course, makes things that much scarier.

What's doubly impressive about this film is that it's not just an action movie. Cuarón, ever the film student, inserts some deft references to the cinematic world he's turning upside down. The influence of Kubrick's 2001 shows up throughout the movie. One scene recalls the image of the Star Child. Stone enters an airlock and floats for a number of seconds in the fetal position. Wires dance around her like an umbilical cord. It's a poignant metaphor for the ultimate struggle for life. Space is represented as the infinite nothingness from which we emerge. Earth (referred to as "Mother Earth" by Kowalski) is life and Stone must get there if she wants to live again. The theme is solidified by the film's breathless conclusion, which won't be spoiled here.

There are other homages as well. Ed Harris (Apollo 13) lends his voice as Mission Control and Bullock floats through the ISS in her underwear recalling Sigourney Weaver's Ripley in Alien. Gravity owes a lot to the movies that preceded it, but, like all great films, has its own fantastic vision. It includes the celestial ballet that, in one frame, shows astronauts dodging satellite debris while the Earth quietly spins below. Cuarón immerses us in the danger with all these moving parts and by doing so, has made the movie of the year.

View Alfonso Cuarón Pictures »
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