‘Gravity’ — an out-of-this-world movie cloaked in essential humanity

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

“Gravity” is that rare film that is so in the moment you feel you never need to see it ever again.

That’s meant to be a compliment, not a put-down.

“Alien” is like that. I’ll watch bits and pieces if it comes on TV, but I’ve never watched it again, from beginning to end since I first saw it decades ago, in a giant Manhattan movie theater.  This was way before the Internet, so word wasn’t out everywhere you looked (or tried not to look) about what came aboard that space ship, how it got loose (yuuuuchiest scene in the history of movies) or who would survive (if anyone).

I’m the same way about “Thelma & Louise.” And “Blood Simple.”

I consider each one a brilliant work. And it’s partly that brilliance that keeps me from re-watching them.

Remember “Alien’s” famous ad line?

“In space, no one can hear you scream.”

“Gravity” turns that maxim upside down and then does the same thing to its stars, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.  In their corner of space, everyone (in the movie theater) can hear you curse, gasp, joke, and, maybe, scream.

The plot is bare-bones simple; Bullock and Clooney are on a routine space mission to fix something or other. He’s the veteran, the guy with the stories, the joking familiarity with Houston (That’s Ed Harris’s voice, a nice tip of the hat to both “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff.”). He’s the one who’s logged the second-longest space walking the Guinness World Record Book. He’s the one who Knows What To Do.

Bullock is a specialist, a doctor of some sort, astro-trained, but essentially a rookie when it comes to Actual Space Stuff. She’s like Paul Bettany’s botanist in “Master and Commander;” familiar enough with the basics to take care of herself, but probably not the one to take over when trouble comes.

And trouble does come, almost immediately. A debris shower is headed their way and, just like a powerful storm at sea, that’s never good.  In an instance, the routine is transformed into the life-threatening.

I totally lack the vocabulary to try to explain the multitude of technological wonders that have somehow made this picture possible. The best I can do, for a certain generation is, it’s like the first time you saw Stanley Kubrick’s space waltz in “2001.” Or perhaps the crowded post-apocalypse, perpetually drenched dark city in “Blade Runner.”

What ultimately distinguishes “Gravity,” isn’t its breathtaking tech-hallucinations, but its essential humanity. With his characters silhouetted against an endless and terrifying starry night, writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien) delights in his extraordinary boundless canvas while, at the same time, keeping us tethered to the plight of his lost-in-space astronauts.

Those with an inordinate knowledge of how space works — or, for that matter, how movies work — may find some nits to pick. But that seems like perversely choosing to resist the movie’s infinite marvels.

I said up top that I wouldn’t want to see “Gravity” a second time. But maybe that’s not so.  After all, how many movies take you out of this world?

Literally.

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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