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Alfonso Cuaron has quite a CV to show by now: he’s responsible for some of the most thrilling, most intense, and most dramatic films of the last decade. Maybe being the most commercially-minded of the current Mexican whiz kids, he does hardly fool around, the stakes never get low in his projects. The end of youth (Y Tu Mama Tambien), good versus evil (Prisoner of Azkaban), or the future of mankind in what I would still consider a clear contender for the one of the best films I have seen in the last decade, “Children of Men”.

And now he throws Sandra Bullock and George Clooney out into space, and at them he throws everything that moves: Early on in “Gravity”, Ed Harris’ voice tells the two of them that they have a problem because of a “chain reaction” triggered by an exploding satellite. And man, has the concept of a chain reaction ever been illustrated with such vigour and brutality as when we’re shown what kind of havoc the laws of physics can wreak in the absence of gravity and in the presence of moving objects. The scenes that depict these raw and unimpeded forces to me were what made this film a real ride. Through the calmness of the opening shots (somebody calculated this to be a 17 minute take without cut, even though that may be a bit hard pressed when we’re talking about a universe consisting exclusively of cgi patterns and structures – no camera, no cut, right?) the scene is set for a first display of catastrophe, and from then on I was a believer in Cuaron’s physics and his design of atmosphere.

That atmosphere is one of perilous silence, where the lack of sound (“in space noone can hear you scream”, remember?) in contrast to the visuals going on is utterly stunning, and enhanced by a soundtrack that gives “Inception”’s “wwwrrrrrrmmm” a run for its money. I realised along the way that I find it thoroughly refreshing not to be annoyed by the sound of explosions for once, I hope the next “Transformers” movie will be set at the ISS as well. Or inside Mars, out of sight.

Dana Stevens at the “Slate Spoiler Special” podcast made an interesting point: wondering whether any others actors who could pull off the roles written for Clooney and Bullock, her result was zip… and it’s sort of true. Casting anybody but Clooney to fill the “Danny Ocean in Spacesuit” role would have rendered that part mostly ridiculous and incredible. Maybe the choice for female lead is wider, but the required combination of maturity and vulnerability, the credibility the actress needs to bring along as a tough chick and a hurt mother in order to do the many crazy things she does without appearing like a character in a jump-and-run video game, but still as a human being, seems quite a challenge. Even with Bullock, the feeling sometimes creeps in that the script writers had a bit more interest in machinery and gravity than in the (few, very few) people populating or operating them. I would bet that the extended spacewalking from A to B (and then to C) was triggered by somebody realising that this was the best way to have really mind-boggling imagery of Planet Earth from above (“hey, and if we do it during the dark period, we can have all these fantastic images of the Nile delta with the lights and all, wouldn’t that be cool?” Yes, it would!).

Some of the scenes are quite a bit on the nose (entering the spacecraft though a small opening, embryonic position…), some are utterly contrived (dream or near-death sequence providing Ms Bullock with all the technical expertise you will ever need to run a foreign space craft), and why it is that Clooney has to leave Bullock at some point was not really the most clear aspect of the script. But what the film achieves is that I cared little about that. I set my timer to 90 minutes and was eager for some more debris action. I did not even care much about how the film would end (even though I was taken a bit aback by how it did end, feeling a tinge of disappointment, just a tiny bit…), but reveled in its beauty and in how the laws of physics were used to heighten this beauty. Outer space is a bit like a condo designed by some overeager interior designers: usually not a very livable place, but it certainly one gorgeous to look at.

Side note: seems the most severe diversion from the reality of space travel was the absence of space diapers in Sandra Bullock’s undergarments. I am quite happy to accept that bit of artistic liberty, and that underwear design has advanced since the days of Lieutenant Ripley.

Side note 2: whichever idiot is responsible for the design of a space craft that only has Chinese characters on the control panel? It’s not a video recorder, dude!

Side note 3: “I have a bad feeling about this mission”…

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gravity_2013/

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