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'Gravity' review: Special effects fly, characters don't

Sandra Bullock (pictured) and George Clooney are stranded

Sandra Bullock (pictured) and George Clooney are stranded and trying to survive in "Gravity," directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Caution: "Gravity," a deep-space thriller from Alfonso Cuaron, may induce vertigo, wobbly knees and shortness of breath. It's a rare combination of jaw-dropping special effects and visual artistry, and it also works as slam-bang entertainment with just two actors and a swift running time of 90 minutes. If this technological marvel had a slightly stronger human heartbeat, it would be a genuine masterpiece.

That heart belongs primarily to Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a jittery NASA rookie helping upgrade the Hubble telescope on the Shuttle Explorer. Her only co-star is George Clooney, nicely cast as Mission Commander Matt Kowalski, a combination father figure and guardian angel who calms her nerves with his creamy voice. They banter pleasantly with Houston (Ed Harris, never seen), but the jocularity stops after a missile strike shatters a distant Russian satellite. Suddenly, a shower of fast-traveling debris sends Stone and Kowalski spinning into infinity.

It's worth pausing to note that this entire opening sequence unfolds in one continuous, 13-minute shot. It's a seamless, dreamlike journey through the majestic Explorer, its spectacular destruction, the sight of Stone whirling helplessly and -- and! -- a stomach-churning view from inside her breath-fogged helmet. "Gravity" is filled with such impressive visuals. Cuarón ("Children of Men"), who directed and co-wrote with his son Jonás, makes innovative use of sound as well. Some of the film's massive explosions make little if any noise, and are more terrifying for it.

The trickery, though impressive, can be distracting, as when Stone's tears become spheres that wobble toward the camera. "Gravity" also can feel overly mechanical, a series of bodies and objects boomeranging in space. Cuarón tries to flesh out the story by giving Stone a tragic backstory; it helps, though Bullock never finds the depth in her thin character. Cuarón also adds philosophical heft by borrowing heavy themes of birth and evolution from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." That results in some beautiful but overly forceful visuals, including a womblike pod with an umbilical oxygen cord.

Ultimately, "Gravity" works wonderfully as pure, thrilling sensation. Feeling, however, is a different matter.

PLOT A rookie astronaut and a seasoned vet are stranded in space.

RATING PG-13 (intense action and brief gruesome imagery)

CAST Sandra Bullock, George Clooney


BOTTOM LINE Mesmerizing special effects, white-knuckle action and visual artistry make this movie an absolute stunner. Thin characters, though, are the price paid for all the dazzle.



It's one thing to make a science fiction film. It's another to feel like you're living in one.

"You would go to Shepperton Studio . . . and it looked like a weird, giant science experiment -- because at the end of the stage you would see this cube, 9 feet by 9 feet, an empty cube, in which all the walls inside were LED lights," says Alfonso Cuarón, director of the lost-in-space thriller "Gravity." "And the cube was elevated 6 feet high and there was a long track leading up to the cube, with one robot, like the robots that they use for car manufacturing, carrying a camera . . . that would go in and out of the cube all the time."

To create the effect that actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are floating in orbit around Earth, nest- and bicycle-seat-like rigs -- as well as rigs designed and manipulated by "War Horse's" puppeteers -- were deployed. While the actors were in their rigging, computer-generated animation sequences were projected in that cube, or onto it.

"And in both wings of the stage, it was just rows and rows and rows and rows of geeks on computers," says Cuarón. "It was an amazing experience, but it's not what I consider 'moviemaking.' "

-- The Philadelphia Inquirer

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