Emotional impact is not the first quality one thinks of when the subject is science-fiction adventures. Yet that’s one of the qualities that sets "Gravity" apart as a stratospheric achievement. Not just a futuristic drama, it’s also a universally human drama about the need for hope in desperate situations.
A riveting tale of two American astronauts cast adrift, the film is a spectacle of brilliantly orchestrated action set-pieces and relentless narrative drive. It contains some of the most impressive feats of technical virtuosity ever committed to film.
Yet its real power is in its urgency, the pull of the story’s anxiety and almost unreachable hope. Dir-
ected with a sure hand and a masterful eye by Alfonso Cuaron ("Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Children of Men"), "Gravity" is not about wowing us with special effects, but touching our souls.
The camera floats gracefully through space, tracking our heroes, rookie astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) as they repair the Hubble telescope 370 miles above Earth. The look is amazing yet familiar, like a NASA documentary. The talk is easygoing. Kowalski keeps up a lighthearted line of quips and conversation to help soothe Stone’s nerves.
An urgent advisory from Houston commands them to abort: An exploded Russian satellite is sending a barrage of shrapnel their way. The lethal bombardment hits ferociously, ripping the space station to smithereens and sending Stone spinning into the void. As her figure recedes, the image sums up the disorienting beauty of space and its cold, terrifying indifference to human life. Emmanuel Lubezki’s crystalline camerawork suggests a hyper-real nightmare.
Unfolding in real time, "Gravity" follows the pair as they search for a ride home. Bullock’s character must also search for a reason to live. In the film’s few cheesy decisions, she is scarred by an old personal catastrophe that undermines her survival instinct. Wouldn’t the psychological fitness tests astronauts undergo have picked up on that? And isn’t it a thudding cliche that everything goes to hell on commander Kowalski’s final mission?
That’s the beginning and end of my nitpicking. Bullock’s great strength as an actress is her underdog vulnerability, and she is ideal in the role of a woman numbed by grief, drawing on resources she didn’t know she had. Clooney, remaining chipper under dire pressure, contributes a performance of warmhearted chivalry. His generosity as a performer mirrors Kowalski’s selfless concern for Stone.
Cuaron uses hard science and film technique to create haunting audiovisual details. His use of sound, and withholding of it in silent, airless space, churns feelings of primal dread. The glancingly observed flotsam drifting through the space stations — a cuff link, a dental retainer — are eerie reminders of human vanity. When Stone, temporarily air-supplied, strips off her bulky suit and rests, her body curls into the fetal position, complete with umbilical-like cables nearby, like the Starchild in "2001."
The harrowing, triumphant final sequence is a breakneck race through states of being that reflect the evolution of life on Earth. It delivers us into a wide-eyed state of untold possibilities, reminding us that no matter how far we’ve explored the heavens, the human journey has just begun. (PG-13, 90 minutes)
— Colin Covert, Star Tribune
A story like that at the heart of ‘‘Runner Runner,’’ about a young American gambler who gets sucked way above his head into the criminal doings of a big-time offshore operator, would have found its ideal life as a tough, punchy, black-and-white programmer back in the 1950s. Today, it would have been most viable as a grandiose character study done on an operatic scale by a filmmaker like Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann. What’s actually up onscreen in this vaguely ambitious but tawdry melodrama falls into an in-between no man’s land that endows it with no distinction whatsoever, a work lacking both style and insight into the netherworld it seeks to reveal. Despite an intriguing setup and Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake heading the cast, this Fox release holds a losing box-office hand.
Threatened with expulsion from Princeton unless he shuts down his online gambling site, finance grad student Richie Furst (Timberlake), with nothing now to lose, heads for Costa Rica determined to stick it to the undisputed king of computer gambling, Ivan Black (Affleck).
Arriving during the boss’s annual blowout, the Midnight Black Expo, Richie cleverly scores an audience with the bodyguard-festooned Ivan. Lounging on his hero’s yacht, Richie brazenly accuses his relaxed host of cheating him on his site . . . and Ivan readily admits it. In the film’s best-written scene, the older man affably agrees to reimburse the kid for his losses and then some. But, then again, Ivan can always use a smart, ballsy guy in his operation, so maybe Richie would like to come work for him. Seven, maybe even eight figures a year beckon.
Richie quickly learns the ropes and gets mixed signals from Ivan’s glamorous factotum Rebecca (Gemma Arterton), who may or may not be on exclusive reserve for the boss. All goes swimmingly until, a third of the way in, Richie is kidnapped by none other than the FBI, whose local agent Shavers (Anthony Mackie) tries to coerce the kid into informing on Ivan’s business.
When Richie tells his boss what happened, Ivan waves it off, claiming it happens to everyone who works for him. But Ivan has a little unpleasantness of his own in store for his eager acolyte, as he forces him to blackmail a top client into a continued business relationship, then starts using him as a bagman to pay off local authorities.