*** (out of four)
Filmed on location in space (not really), "Gravity" takes cinema's immersive visual experience to ambitious places. This isn't an astronaut thriller that periodically cuts to nervous family members on the ground or flashback sequences about training. For 90 minutes, it's pretty much just first-timer Ryan (Sandra Bullock), veteran mission commander Matt (George Clooney) and a staggering long view of Earth that can be difficult to focus on when debris threatens to knock you spinning, spinning, spinning out into nothingness forever.
At best, "Gravity" is a beautiful collision of art and technology. How director/co-writer Alfonso Cuaron, returning with his first feature since 2006's spectacular "Children of Men," achieved many of the shots (particularly several long takes) will be of primary discussion among audiences on their way out. At a time when few filmmakers deserve to be called visionaries, Cuaron earns the term like a champ.
The movie likewise feels at home in IMAX 3-D, even if sights of floating tears or Matt's fist popping from the screen come off as trite. Which leads to what probably will be an unpopular opinion: "Gravity" is not a great film. Numerous times the script from Cuaron and his son Jonas interrupts the reality of the imagery. "Ryan, you're gonna have to learn to let go," Matt tells her, a line so much like movie speechifying I'm shocked at its inclusion. And Ryan, a Lake Zurich, Ill., resident BTW, actually contemplates her fate and says, "Either way, it'll be one hell of a ride." That's not a vivid, breathtaking journey into satellites and stars; it's a bumper sticker platitude.
The film also informs us that life in space is impossible, as if we didn't know that, and gives Clooney a part as an easygoing, charming guy that's not exactly stretching his range. Bullock's very good as an outer-space newbie forced to "sip, not gulp" her dwindling oxygen. And, man, that scenery. As the Cuarons force their emotional stakes (including Ryan's shoehorned-in backstory) and deliver something less than the flawless movie buzz has suggested, it's easy to think, "Shut up, brain, and just enjoy the view!"
Now there's a bumper sticker.
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