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Film Review


Why is it that great science fiction films are so rare? Perhaps for the same reason that great science fiction writing is rare: the depictions of human relationships tend to have less depth and nuance than in classic fiction, and are usually subordinated to technology and spectacle. At the same time, the story needs to be plausible, both from a scientific view and the human condition. Of the many science fiction films, Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), is considered the greatest, and in the minds of many critics, one of the best films of any genre ever made. But a handful of other greats, like Andrei Tarkovsky's "Solaris" (1972), Steven Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) and "Jurassic Park" (1993), Ridley Scott's "Alien" (1979) and "Blade Runner" (1982) have also become classics. Most relied on the then state of the art computer animation and later, computer graphics. Today's computer graphics programs are extraordinary, with breathtaking complex scenes that would have been impossible just 20 years ago, yet great science fiction films are still rare. But last week a new great sci fi film opened: "Gravity", an ironic title for a film without any.

Alfonso Cuaron, a noted Mexican film director ("Y Tu Mama Tambien" and "Children of Men") has just written (with his son, Jonas) and directed an extraordinary science fiction film, "Gravity", which tells the story of a space mission suddenly facing disaster. The film opens with a spectacular view of earth from space, with the sun rising. Faint voices in the background become louder, and we see two astronauts, Matt Kowalski and Ryan Stone, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, attempting to repair a malfunctioning part in the Hubble Space Telescope. They are outside, in space, tethered to the telescope, sometimes doing little somersaults, to reach things. Occasionally a tool starts to drift away, toward the audience, and is retrieved. Cuaron uses 3D well, unlike most 3D films. The images are dazzling and as realistic as I have ever seen. Later, in one of many astonishing scenes, we see a tear from Stone detach and drift toward us, glistening and moving ever closer. A similar scene shows a cabin filled with floating chess pieces. The images of earth, clearly taken from Landsat photos, are marvelous and you can't help trying to identify the geography. The zero gravity scenes, which comprise most of the film, are convincing and nothing short of magical. Other than actually going up in the space shuttle, this is as close to space as most of us will ever experience.

Suddenly the astronauts receive an urgent message from Houston control to abandon the mission and get back into their craft. A satellite has disintegrated and created a field of debris that will soon act like shrapnel when it reaches their position. And thus begins a desperate struggle for survival that is as riveting and suspenseful as any thriller. Events unfold quickly, and much of it seems to be in real time. Outer space is shown as unforgiving in so many memorable, breathtaking scenes. The beauty here is ravishing but often deadly, and in a sense, space becomes the third actor. The story line seems reasonably credible, becomes increasingly fast paced, and sweeps us along. Clooney is good, of course, but his casting and dialogue seem problematic; he is a typical wise guy pilot always joking and calm in emergencies. But Bullock runs away with the film, in part because she has much more screen time. Her character has a sad secret that she is struggling to deal with, but she has fire in her belly. No question here about an Academy nomination.

Cuaron has given us a spectacular, thrilling old fashioned sort of Hollywood film, using the latest CG technology. Most of the filming was actually done in a sound stage in England with the ending shot at Lake Mead. This is a short film, only 90 minutes, but nearly every minute of "Gravity" is absolutely beautiful, and to use an old fashioned word, grand. Rare spectacle of the best sort. The soundtrack is wonderful, and I intend to buy it. Likely that "Gravity" will sweep the Academy Awards, certainly for best picture, best special effects, and probably best director. It is in very wide release, playing in San Francisco at the Kabuki, the Presidio, the Balboa, and both Metreons. If there is ever a film to see on the big screen, this is it.

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