Alfonso Cuaron’s first feature since 2006 (Children of Men) is both a traditional, seat-of-your-pants thriller and a meditation on isolation and impending death. In the latter category, it more than succeeds. I saw it at an IMAX theater in 3D, and in an era of distraction, I’ve never seen such rapt attention given a film. The stillness of space transported the theater, and understandably so. The visuals are jaw-dropping, and Cuaron depicts space in such a unique manner, both expansive and claustrophobic, the viewer feels lost and vulnerable in the great unknown. At the end, the audience breathed a collective sigh of relief, satisfied but a little antsy to get out on the street. For once, the technological wizardry of Hollywood was employed in sync with the other elements of a film, rather than as it primary recommendation.
Now, I am sure even a lowly NASA intern might look at the technical specifics of the plot and chortle. Astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are working on a space station when debris from a destroyed satellite not only rips through their command but through near every satellite and space station in a line, as if all were posted on the same space highway. The catastrophe leaves them dislocated, and the only way back home is to propel themselves from the U.S. station to a Russiain one to a Chinese one, improvising along the way. Interestingly, of all the leaps the audience has to take, I was most confident you can’t use a fire extinguisher as a jet pack, but dammit if Bullock didn’t do just that, it seemed perfectly plausible while I was watching it, and it is “theoretically possible“. Regardless, niggling about what could and could not happen in real life is an indicator that you should have seen Captain Phillips.
If I have a criticism, it is on the meditation aspect, and even then, it is minor. Not that the film wasn’t well-written. Bullock’s journey from helpless to frantic to resigned to resistant is compelling, and she has collected some gravitas as she’s aged, transforming from spunky to flinty. Clooney, however, is badly miscast. His wisecracking, country music listening solid leader is formulaic, and he communicates a sly grin in even the most dire of circumstances. You need more than a really strong turn as Dennis Quaid in the role.
Still, at 90 minutes, the film doesn’t dawdle, and as solely a visceral joy, it’s one of the best pictures of the year.