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Lost in space




(PG-13), directed by Alfonso Cuaron

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The digital revolution, with all its computer-generated images, optical wizardry, and wondrous special effects, now drives far too many filmmakers to produce the bloated blockbusters that rattle the cineplexes summer after summer. Far too often, mechanism substitutes for the traditional content of plot, character, and meaning. Now and then, however, the remarkable advances in cinema technology achieve a certain harmony with the stories they so often tell so badly, so that the movies actually deserve their magic.

In "Gravity" that technology once again dominates the action, but this time works in the service of plot and character; it also even provides the subject of the picture. It begins with that now-familiar image of the wonders of our time, astronauts moving around in space, working on some adjustments to the exterior of their capsule, conversing with each other and Mission Control back in Houston while rotating and floating around the craft. (The picture really should be called "Zero Gravity.")

The two major characters — really the only characters — the mission commander, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), and a medical officer, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) — present two very different personalities. A wisecracking space jockey, Kowalski wants to break the record for walks outside the craft; a rookie, Stone feels nervous and queasy. A voice from Mission Control informs them that in the process of destroying an obsolete satellite, the Russians have accidentally set off a chain reaction, sending hundreds of pieces of debris hurtling at great speed toward the Americans and any other spacecraft in the path.

That simple situation initiates the plot, basically a survival story in which Stone must somehow control her wildly gyrating body, dodge all the junk flying at her, return to the craft, and find a way to reach the international space station. Kowalski calms her down, instructs her in how to conserve the oxygen in her suit, and talks her back to the capsule, where she finds the whole crew dead from a collision with the debris. From that point on the movie settles into a string of catastrophes from which Stone must find a method of escape.

Throughout the whole process, the film, in 3D, constantly shows a multitude of objects, all manner of space debris, flying out of the screen toward the audience from all directions. The camera frequently shifts to Ryan Stone's point of view from within the claustrophobic confines of her helmet, enhancing the terrific tension and increasing the sense of danger. Stone herself bounces off the insides of several vessels, floating like a loose balloon, out of control like a thrown rubber ball.

In addition to those remarkable effects, the whole picture takes place in a zero-gravity environment, so that the astronaut only occasionally finds stability when she manages to strap herself into a seat. The sustained illusion of an hour and a half of zero gravity constitutes one of the most brilliant achievements of contemporary technology and cinematography. "Gravity" displays what may be the best and most logical use of 3D filmmaking.

Although she occupies the screen as its sole character throughout what essentially amounts to a one-person movie, the script provides Sandra Bullock with few opportunities to exhibit anything like variety or nuance; she is mostly a victim of circumstance who must cope with one unimaginable danger after another. Her character grows into competence through her resourcefulness, but those qualities emerge from her seemingly impossible situation, from all the stuff the director throws at her or puts her through. The other big name, George Clooney, on the other hand, receives very few opportunities and very little screen time, and simply exercises his familiar charm.

The real star of the movie is its quite amazing technology, which oddly for the cinema of our time, not only works, but actually makes sense. The flying objects, the revolving figures, the stunning visions of Earth, the sense of the endless emptiness of space combine to make "Gravity" a very special achievement.

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