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REVIEW: 'Gravity' is a remarkable take on familiar space story

This film image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Sandra Bullock in a scene from 'Gravity.' Bullock says making the lost-in-space movie directed by Alfonso Cuaron was her best life decision ever.

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★★★★ (out of 4)


Wide release

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By Bill Goodykoontz
Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, 6:38 p.m.

“Gravity” is an amazing movie for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is how director Alfonso Cuaron, who co-wrote the film with his son Jonas, tells what seems like a familiar type of story in a way we've never seen.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his last mission, are in the middle of a spacewalk as the film begins.

It's an incredible 13-minute sequence that establishes both where we are (in the middle of the most realistic-looking space setting ever filmed) and who we are watching.

She is serious-minded and a little nervous, trying to repair some sort of gizmo crucial to continuing funding for her research. He is content to float around, making sure she's OK, cracking wise with Mission Control (Ed Harris provides the voice of authority). Kowalski is going to enjoy his final flight.

Then comes word a Soviet satellite has been blown up. The debris is heading their way, at 55,000 mph. A race to get back to their shuttle proves unsuccessful, which is just as well: The floating debris destroyed it, killing everyone onboard.

So, now we are down to brass tacks: two people in space, with a finite amount of oxygen, with no communication with Earth. Kowalski instructs Stone to continue talking to Houston, because it's possible the ground crew can hear them, even if they can't hear the ground crew. It's essential to the story that this happens, but it's also oddly poignant.

It's quite the predicament. Yet, at no point does Cuaron's film seem implausible. The solutions Kowalski and Stone seek are at once sound and difficult, if not impossible. Kowalski's gruff charm and experience play well off Stone's growing panic. A portion of her backstory may strike some as too much, but it's clear Cuaron wants Stone to attempt to save more than her skin. He wants to involve her soul, too.

Clooney is his reliable self, once again playing the guy you'd like to have a beer with. Bullock, however, is outstanding. Cuaron challenges her — and she challenges herself — like never before. She's afraid, literally out of her element. But she's also smart and tough, and Bullock expresses this at all times, even when she's stuck inside a spacesuit.

Part of me wants to know how Cuaron (“City of Men”) filmed the movie. Part of me wants it to remain a magical secret. His use of special effects and 3-D is stunning. It's never boastful, never a gimmick.

“Gravity” is full of layered dimensions, in more than one sense of the word. It is a remarkable achievement.

Bill Goodykoontz of The Arizona Republic is the chief film critic for Gannett.

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