“What do you like about being up here?” one astronaut asks another, in Alfonso Cuarón’s wondrous space odyssey “Gravity.” She answers, “The silence.”
Silence is terrifying in this film, as is nothingness: the image of an astronaut, floating untethered, somersaulting through emptiness as she whispers “please copy” into her headset, praying that someone, somewhere, might hear her. “Gravity” is brief, strangely beautiful and deeply moving; far from being the sterile technical exercise it might have been, the film illustrates, better than any other I can think of this year, the aching way in which a heart longs for home.
Though George Clooney flits through the film as a genial astronaut nearing retirement, and Ed Harris provides the comforting voice of Mission Control, this is for much of its length a one-character movie. Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission, is making seemingly routine repairs to the Hubble Telescope when an unexpected shower of debris aborts the mission, wipes out ground communication and destroys the shuttle. (We see the poignant sight of objects — eyeglasses, a Rubik’s cube, someone’s retainer — floating through the now-abandoned shuttle; little pieces left, of those now gone.) Ryan, with dwindling oxygen and little experience in space, must desperately figure out how to return to Earth, and to home.
There are no flashbacks in “Gravity,” which entirely takes place in space, with actors who for most of the film must convey emotion from behind a thick glass helmet, using only their voices. It shouldn’t work, and it’s a tribute to Cuarón’s remarkable talent — and his cast — that it does. Clooney is a wonderfully comforting presence, but it’s Bullock who astonishes. We learn, in the film’s subtle screenplay (written by Cuarón with his son, Jonás), only a little about Ryan and about the terrible sadness that drove her to the overwhelming silence of space; it’s all that we need to know.
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Watch this film on the biggest screen you can find, in 3D IMAX if possible — not to be overwhelmed by its noise and effects, but to join its smart, soulful heroine on her incredible journey and to experience the size of its quietness.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org