Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Don't bring me down: "Gravity"

And we're back! And how! After a summer that saw me make it to the cinema only a handful of times -- including "Monsters University" with the kiddos, boom -- I somehow managed to take in two, count 'em TWO, movies on Monday. Thanks, Columbus!

"Gravity" had been a must-see for some time, and for fairly obvious reasons:
 1. Alfonso Cuaron directed "Children of Men," which may have been bleak but was mighty good.
2. Two, it's set in space. I love space movies! Perhaps to an unhealthy degree. Or maybe it's normal to think, "Hey, I haven't see 'The Ice Pirates' in a while ... "
3. The Clooney. We know him, we love him. So if Clooney is in space, I'm there. Yes, even after "Solaris." Man ... "Solaris." Clooney, Soderbergh and space. Three good things, one crappy movie.

Here's where I normally segue with "Throw in Sandra Bullock ... " But does a disservice on two levels. One, Sandy has gone from likable pixie in her early years to bonafide Hollywood heavyweight ... all while still being easy to tolerate. And she will ALWAYS get the benefit of the doubt from me for going along with the sex tape bit in the old sitcom "Action."

The second level, as we'll see, is that "Gravity" is her show, even with the double billing with Clooney. So no "throw in" here.

Bullock plays a medical engineer on a space shuttle mission to repair the Hubble telescope. We open with her making the repairs while astronaut Clooney drifts around -- ostensibly to make sure out 3D glasses are working. I kid! After all, I sprung for the extra dimensions because I read this movie delivered the visual goods. And it does from the start. Save for Clooney's babbling and Mission Control's responses, all is mostly quiet in orbit, allowing us to appreciate the true (lack of) volume in space and how that quiet lets us drink in the action around the shuttle. With the camera tracking everything in one shot for several minutes, it's not quite dizzying, but it is somewhat hypnotic.

The tranquility doesn't last, however. When a satellite explosion ultimately sends a wave of debris toward our crew, it becomes a very bad day indeed. Clooney and Bullock are left to figure out Plan B, making do with whatever else is in orbit, e.g. the International Space Station, also damaged. That's the simple premise: Find a way to get home. But that's enough when you're more than 200 miles above terra firma.

With this basic plot, we get to focus on the two great strengths of "Gravity." The sights and sounds really can't be praised enough, and without knowing squat about how these things are judged, I'll be stunned if this movie doesn't win a slew of effects and editing awards. We've seen space walks and people crawling around outside spaceships before, but not to this degree, and not with all the fits and starts that come from this weightless environment. But as much as I dig my space visuals, the way Cuaron captures noise -- and again, the lack of it -- is more impressive. Given all the ear-shattering sh*t out there these days, it's more breathtaking to see an explosion and disintegration happen in silence.

Well, almost silence. There is Clooney's jabbering and Bullock's gasping. And that's the second strength: two actors delivering believable characters. Clooney has the easier road with his natural smirky charm, but he also projects calm authority as needed.

Bullock takes longer to unveil her wounded soul. But that makes sense with "Gravity" being about a fight not only for survival but rebirth. Apparently everyone but Betty White was considered for the role before our gal Sandy, but it's hard to believe any could have combined the unease and resolve of her character quite as well. You could almost hear her thinking, "Why, why, why? Why did I make 'Speed 2: Cruise Control?'"