Lost in Space

Gravity draws real thrills from the vast emptiness and silence of space
SPACE RACE: Stranded astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) must survive in space with dwindling oxygen.

It was said of Steven Spielberg that he was the first director to compose without the thought of a proscenium arch. The shockingly exciting Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron seems like the first film to be composed without thought of the walls or the ceiling of the theater. It's clear that you're watching a classic: lavish with effects and yet brutally economical.

It begins far above earth, with some studious blandness; George Clooney's crumbly, comforting voice droning happily—as two assistants are doing some repairs on the Hubble telescope. The space shuttle Explorer is upside down, a golden parasol over them as they float. Clooney is the dream vision of an astronaut—chatty, always in the middle of a half-finished dirty story he's broadcasting Houston. Later, when things have gotten as bad as they can possibly get, he acknowledges the trouble laconically: "Pretty scary shit."

He's sweetening up the physician Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) working with him. This tranquil scene is interrupted by a news flash: an unmanned Russian rocket has hit a satellite, knocking out communications. Like the first pieces of falling scree indicating the avalanche to come, a spray of debris is coming to them at a high rate of speed. Very shortly—the film unfolds in real time, in 90 blessed minutes—the survivors are floating without a serious ride home and little oxygen.

This ultimate open-boat ordeal doesn't make Earth a comforting sight. The glitter of the city lights have a sinister look, like a coal burning its way out of a paper bag. It's ever a reminder to the stranded astronauts that even if they can kluge together a ride, the problem remains of plummeting through the atmosphere.

The opening title tells us of the several hundred degree temperature range, from horribly cold to infernally hot; the vacuum kills all sound, so that when things whirl and smash into each other, the unearthliness is in the silence. Traditional space-sound in sci-fi movies is like the low roar of an airplane engine turned down to about 2: Cuaron's technicians here have a particular dead silence more dismaying than any trumpets or French horns. I say that even though I adore "Capsule in Space" by John Barry, the music to the pre-title sequence of You Only Live Twice (1967): a portion of Roald Dahl macabreness that no doubt terrified the young Cuaron, and which is now given the ultimate reprise.

Dahl couldn't have surpassed the gradual building of trouble: the scrabbling at tools that have a mind of their own, with the sausage-fingered gloves of a space suit; the clumsiness of trying to do something gymnastic when pulled in the wrong direction and while wearing a slippery, inflatable and too fragile suit. And then there's the minor problem of trying to read a control panel written in Mandarin. What we see is solidly, masterfully composed: not the aimless whirling around we're used to from hyper-fast cutting. There always seems to be an axle on Cuaron's spinning wheel.

Some parking-lot pickery can be done later. We see what infinity looks like—we see into it, straight through the skull of a martyred astronaut—so the mention of prayer seems particularly wrong. Bullock—her floating, beautifully-made frame, still with gracefulness of gawkiness, tossing her helmet like an anti-gravity bowling ball—has a line about how "no one ever taught me to pray." Her Stone is from a small Illinois town, too—where do you hide from people trying to teach you just that?

A dialogue with one Chinese ham radio emphasizes the absolute isolation. But haven't Earth's ham-radioists been waiting for just this kind of blackout for decades? And when Kowalski talks Stone through her hypoxia terror, one recalls the Kurt Vonnegut joke about the opera fan screaming at the actors playing Radames and Aida, telling them to stop singing before they use up the air in the pyramid.

This is, again, parking lot stuff. Most viewers will be too busy kissing the ground when it's over.


90 min; PG-13

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