Space has been a favorite frontier of filmmakers since Georges Méliès captivated audiences in 1902 with his silent film, "A Trip to the Moon." The great unknown has served as a backdrop for close encounters, intergalactic wars and the source of desperation and hope.
A few films have managed to combine both stunning visuals with compelling stories to earn a place in the sensational cinema solar system. "Gravity" is the latest heavenly body from Hollywood.
Director Alfonso Cuarón doesn't just paint a dazzling and compelling portrait of an emotionally stunted medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) and a roguish astronaut (George Clooney) who must find a way to survive after being stranded in space when their shuttle is destroyed. He also transports us to that cold vacuum as an ad hoc participant.
The first 20 minutes of the movie — presented without a single edit — is a masterpiece of filmmaking that sets the tone for the incredible journey. An edit in a movie gives the viewer a chance to take a breath and reset for what's to come next. There are so few edits in this movie that, by the time it ends, the viewer is left feeling emotionally exhausted and breathless.
Not since "2001: A Space Odyssey" rocked the film world in 1968 with its incredible portrayal of life in outer space has a movie been as visually groundbreaking as "Gravity." From the panoramic views of Earth to the tiny drops of tears floating in the weightlessness of space, Cuarón doesn't miss a single opportunity to amaze.
It would have been easy for the technical wizardry to overshadow the performances, but Bullock and Clooney show once again why they are two of the most dependable actors working today.
Clooney's role as Matt Kowalski, the astronaut on his final mission, gives the movie heart. Not only does he sell the performance through his cornball stories, but the look on his face when he gazes at the big world in front of him says volumes about a man who loves life as much as he loves his job. The movie would have still been a technical marvel without Clooney, but he provides the humanity that makes it memorable.
Bullock's acting task is a little harder. Her Ryan Stone is a woman dealing with an almost impossible burden. The weight of it has crushed most of the life out of her and all that seems to have survived is her intellect. Just as Tom Hanks showed in "Cast Away," Bullock's performance grows as her character slowly casts off the mantel of angst and wraps herself in a blanket of hope. It's that transformation that pulls us into the seat next to her as she fights to stay alive.
Science-fiction movies rarely get attention when it comes to acting awards. That should change. Clooney and Bullock have done some of the best work in their storied careers with this film.
"Gravity" doesn't travel any new ground with the space story. It just takes what has become standard and powers it into the cinema stratosphere with visuals that can't be fully appreciated in a single viewing and a story that is full of emotional fireworks.
"Gravity," rated PG-13 for language, disturbing images. Stars Sandra Bullock, George Clooney. Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Running time: 91 minutes. Grade: A
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.