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The pull of ‘Gravity’

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Gravity

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Astronaut recruitment can be expected to take a nosedive once audiences have had a chance to see Alfonso Cuarón’s new movie, “Gravity.” The perils and poetry of space travel haven’t been so vividly depicted since Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and I don’t say that lightly.

Only an hour and a half long and whipcord taut, “Gravity” depicts the travails of a spaceflight mission specialist (Sandra Bullock) who’s trying to find a way back to Earth after a debris field cripples her spacecraft and most of the other available rides in the orbital neighborhood. Bullock milks this one for all it’s worth, and she might as well, since she’s in virtually every shot in the movie, alone for most of it. George Clooney is charismatic as ever as Bullock’s mission commander, but make no mistake. This is pretty much a one-woman show.

Her character, Dr. Ryan Stone, is damaged goods, having apparently gone to space to literally get away from it all after the accidental death of her young daughter. Whether or not she’ll find both the will and the means to survive is ostensibly the point of the movie, but director and co-writer Cuarón has commercial instincts enough not to linger too long on frivolities like character development. Where “Gravity” lives and breathes is in the thrills department, and there it doesn’t disappoint. This white knuckle stuff from beginning to end. Even the movie’s deceptively benign opening, with the shuttle crew doing a space walk while Clooney bores Mission Control (Ed Harris, veteran of the space program sagas “The Right Stuff” and “Apollo 13,” provides the voice of Mission Control ) silly with shaggy dog stories, is almost painfully suspenseful because we know bad stuff is coming.

Once the flying debris shows up, it’s one thing after another, and Cuarón not only effectively delivers the shocks on cue, but frequently surprises. “Gravity” provides the sort of vicarious, cinematic rollercoaster ride the best disaster movies used to: the characters go through it so you don’t have to. And whatever problems you walked into the theater with won’t seem as bad when you leave.

The special effects bear mentioning not only because they’re good - other than a few obviously CGI fire effects, most of the effects are extremely convincing - but because almost every shot in the movie is augmented in some way. Kubrick’s breakthrough, visionary “2001” still stands a special effects showcase, even more so because they were being done largely with technology that had existed for decades. “Gravity” could not have been made the way it was without computers. The opening sequence, some of which is in the trailers, features an incredibly long shot of astronauts in space, drifting, spinning, often getting close enough to let you see the actors’ faces in their helmets. Cuarón’s approach is anti-Michael Bay: rather than moving the camera and cutting so quickly the audience can barely follow the action, he tends to linger, which enhances verisimilitude rather than detract from it. He’s also very scrupulous about the silence of space, and the well-executed property damage set pieces are actually enhanced by the absence of sound effects.

The question that often arises with 3D movies is whether it’s worth paying the heftier ticket prices to see it that way. In the case of “Gravity,” the answer has to be an unequivocal yes. The movie should be seen in the theaters, it should be seen in 3D, and on the largest screen possible. “Gravity” is available in IMAX 3D in selected areas, and it is worth it. Viewers who wait for Red Box will not get what the fuss was about.

“Gravity’s” distributor, Warner Bros., is clearly trying to position this movie for awards consideration, and the Academy’s well-established disdain for genre movies notwithstanding, it might just get it. In any event, they’ll be lining up for this one. “Gravity” is a white-knuckle thrill ride that doesn’t want to come down to Earth.

"Gravity" is playing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Bow Tie Cinemas Movieland in Schenectady, The Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX and The Spectrum 7 in Albany.

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