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Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) in Gravity, a drama set in space.

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★★★★★

Gravity

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney

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The film opens with sobering facts about space written on a black screen, while a sound like a rocket launching grows deafeningly loud, so it is clear from the very beginning that Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity will be merciless. But the brutal facts and gripping story are set against the incredible beauty of Earth as seen from space, with sleight-of-hand special effects, and gorgeously rendered scenes of sunrises and the northern lights from orbit.

When a Russian anti-satellite mission accidently hurls deadly debris into the orbit of a shuttle mission sent to upgrade the Hubble Space Telescope, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is flung from the cargo bay arm into space. Mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who is wearing a thruster pack, maneuvers out to rescue her, but the debris has destroyed their shuttle, killed all of the other astronauts, and taken down the satellites necessary for them to communicate with mission control.

Almost every protection they have against the perils of space fails them, and almost every clever plan is thwarted by harsh physical realities and bad luck. They reach the ISS before Stone’s oxygen is depleted, only to face the near impossibility of actually landing on it. The only remaining Soyuz module is entangled in its own parachute lines, there’s a fire on board the ISS, and the orbiting debris comes around every 90 minutes to tear through what remains.

Stone may be a highly trained specialist, but from the beginning, when she nearly loses a screw from the Hubble, she is also an everyman, which can excuse some of the lack of character development. Meanwhile, Kowalski is the very picture of an astronaut as he jokes with Houston and wishes he could beat the record for most hours on spacewalks. While Kowalski continues to act almost unbelievably lighthearted after the disaster, Stone is utterly unprepared. But she begins to emulate him: when she radios to him from the ISS, she uses the same questions and suggestions that he used when she was spinning out into space earlier. Later, a conversation with him snaps her out of helplessness and leads to an out-of-the-box solution to a problem.

Although the dialogue is not a strong point, there are darkly humorous moments, such as when Stone realizes just how difficult survival will be and says, “I hate space.” Cuarón masterfully portrays human ingenuity, generosity, and humor in the face of astronomical odds.

Audiences have come to expect howlers and egregious exaggerations in Hollywood movies, but Gravity sets the bar high for future science fiction. The physics might surprise people who haven’t taken 8.01: when Stone is flung into space spinning, there is no friction to slow her down. The scene is a very visceral demonstration of mechanics: the camera first focuses on her face from outside her helmet and then slowly moves through the glass until we see the same sickening spinning she experiences. Space buffs might know that the ISS and Hubble are not actually so close together, and a real life Kowalski wouldn’t have been wasting precious fuel to goof around in the beginning.

However, the unrealistic aspects are not mistakes but rather sacrifices to tell the greater story. When Stone removes her space suit in the airlock of the ISS, she should be wasting no time to rescue the still free-floating Kowalski, but instead she curls up in the fetal position as though the airlock were a womb, which is one of the most powerful images of the film. Later, she sees the Soyuz as a similarly safe place and does not want to push on. But survival requires going away from the places that were once safe.

Gravity might not make you want to be an astronaut, but it will make you proud to be human.