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Review: 'Gravity' soars as it meets lofty expectations

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There's not much weighing down "Gravity," an awe-inspiring cinematic achievement by director Alfonso Cuaron and his two stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Much has been said about the sci-fi drama since its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, which inevitably created some pretty lofty expectations. With so much buzz about the film going in, I was a tiny-bit underwhelmed by the film after all the hype, but merely over some plot points and not the film's nail-biting space sequences: They are definitely a spectacle to behold, especially on the IMAX screen.

Bullock and Clooney star as astronauts Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalksi, respectively: a rookie on her first space shuttle mission and veteran on his last. The two are out of the ship on a space walk with another astronaut, Shariff (Paul Sharma), doing repairs to the Hubble telescope when space debris from a satellite purposefully destroyed by the Russians comes screaming their way. Apart from decimating the shuttle, Ryan and Shariff's tethers and other equipment are torn loose from the ship.

In one of the film's most terrifying sequences, Stone is whirled aimlessly into space, while Kowalksi, equipped with a jetpack, attempts to rescue her. Shariff and the rest of the astronauts, as the pair soon discover, have all been killed.

What follows is a daunting, almost real-time trek into the dark and silent depths of space, as Stone and Kowalski attempt to find refuge and hopefully an escape pod at the International Space Station, which was abandoned by its crew before the debris began to hit. It's only the first step in a harrowing series of events that finds the pair adrift with dwindling oxygen and fuel supplies, and much, much more space debris on the way.

While Cuaron -- who co-wrote the film with his son, Jonas -- masters the space scenes, he's not intent on letting the visual effects rule his movie. He literally takes you inside the helmets of his astronauts, where you get to experience the panic and pain of Stone, and the sure-handed resolve of the Kowalksi and they try to navigate their way to safety.

Clooney turns on his natural charm as Kowalski in what turns out to be a supporting role -- perhaps too much at times. The death of his fellow crew members and the prospect of visiting the great beyond himself doesn't prevent him from cracking jokes, and let's just say it feels like the character doesn't fully realize the gravity of the situation. One could argue on that the flip side, Kowalski merely has one very strange coping mechanism.

Ultimately, "Gravity" is Bullock's film, and she probably turns in her best dramatic performance to date. In addition to conveying the dreadful feeling of doom, we learn of devastating personal tragedy that will ultimately lead her to decide to give in to a seemingly impossible situation, or somehow give her the will to survive. The chilling sub-narrative surrounding Stone's fragile psyche definitely gives the film its emotional weight.

Naturally, not everything in "Gravity" seems possible, and while I'm not a rocket scientist (sorry, had to go there), I would say it's a pretty safe bet that what Ryan and Stone need to accomplish in order to survive doesn't exist at this point in time in the NASA space program (and not just because the government is shut down). Don't worry, though. As far-fetched as some elements of the film are, you won't spend a lot of time dissecting the possibilities while you're watching "Gravity" just because the movie is so compelling.

On the flip side, there's no question that the dangers of space debris is quite real. It's expertly illustrated, in fact, in Minnesota filmmaker Melissa Butts' IMAX documentary "Space Junk 3D," where, among other things, she chronicles the 2009 crash between an Iridium Communications satellite and the Russia’s Kosmos 2251 satellite.

By NASA’s estimates, the crash created 1,000 pieces of space debris more than 4 inches in diameter apiece, definitely big enough pieces to create a catastrophe. In "Gravity," it was the Russians blowing up their own spy satellite with a missile, creating a cloud of debris that expands exponentially as the space junk takes out several other satellites in its wake.

If anything, "Space Junk" serves as an interesting companion piece to "Gravity," which comes off as one of the most original films of the year. Through Bullock and Clooney you can't help but experience the ultimate feeling of isolation -- alone in space with the Earth in your view, but home far from your grasp. And while it's a technical wonder to see Bullock and Clooney float around in zero gravity, you'll definitely kiss the ground you walk on after the credits begin to roll.

"Gravity," rated PG-13, 3 1/2 stars out of 4

What other local critics are saying ...

Chris Hewitt of the Pioneer Press gives the film 4 stars, saying the film is "a reminder of what is thrilling and beautiful about the movies: They make us believe in the impossible."

Colin Covert of the Star Tribune also gives the film 4 stars, calling it a "stratospheric achievement."

Bring Me The News film critic Tim Lammers is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films on “KARE 11 News at 11” and WCCO Radio. As a feature writer, Tim has interviewed well over 1,000 major actors and filmmakers throughout his career and his work is syndicated nationwide.

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