Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Director Alfonso Cuaron begins his film orbiting over Earth with Emmanuel Lubezki’s fluid camera moving languidly toward the Hubble Space Telescope where a tethered Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) works on the satellite, fighting the queasiness of zero gravity. Meanwhile veteran Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) cracks jokes and darts around on a jet pack, hoping to break the spacewalk record. This first shot lasts over ten minutes and has a beauty and serenity that lulls us into forgetting the opening title card’s admonishment: “Life in space is impossible.” The voice of Houston (an unseen Ed Harris) breaks in with the news that a cloud of debris moving at great speed is on a collision course with the astronauts. Before the crew can escape, the shrapnel strikes, leaving their spacecraft devastated, communication with Houston disrupted, and Kowalski and Stone stranded. Armed with a depleted jet pack, dwindling oxygen tanks, and a tether holding them together, the castaways make their way toward the nearest potential refuge, the International Space Station. Cuaron’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with son Jonas, makes space the ultimate antagonist – dispassionate and merciless. Every action Kowalski and Stone take for survival is fraught with obstacles and mortal danger, which makes for riveting, breathless cinema. The writers stumble (most likely at the studio’s behest) when they add a maudlin human-interest back-story for Stone in which she lost her daughter in an accident years ago and must learn to let go. That quibble aside, you are unlikely to see a more economical, pulse-quickening adventure this year. Bullock is compelling, and Clooney is Clooney, which is just fine. The film’s technical achievement is as brilliant as it is subtle. With the help of ace cinematographer Lubezki and a battalion of special effects gurus, Cuaron drops us into the action and completely convinces us that we, like Stone and Kowalski, are adrift in space. When we emerge on shaky legs from the theater (where the movie should be seen, dare I say in 3-D) gravity never felt so good.