Technically dazzling and emotionally gripping, Gravity is a space-age science-fiction thriller grounded in something close to reality.
Alfonso Cuarón's movie gives us Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as space walkers whose ship is wrecked, forcing them to face the ultimate human fear: dying alone.
And there is no place lonelier than the cold, silent, airless vacuum of space.
Filmed in a stunning "How'd they do that?" 3-D, we meet chatty Matt Kowalski (Clooney), who is testing a new jet pack, and Ryan Stone (Bullock), who is working on the Hubble Space Telescope. It's a routine space walk, with a barely glimpsed third astronaut outside the shuttle Explorer.
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It's just another day of work for STS 157, with Kowalski cracking jokes and telling stories. Mission Control (the unseen Ed Harris) indulges him, bemused as ever.
A cloud of deadly debris is racing for them. Before they can abort the space walk, get inside and flee, the ship is trashed, their third space walker is killed and they're stranded. Mere minutes of oxygen in Stone's suit stand between her and an even quicker death than the certain doom facing them both.
Clooney's soothing voice is used to wonderful effect as he calms the space rookie. His Kowalski is Mr. Right Stuff, coming up with a plan — jetting over to the International Space Station, which had to be abandoned because of the coming debris — and making Stone tell him chunks of her life story to still her panic.
Oxygen? "Sip, not gulp. Remember, wine, not beer."
The movie plays out in something like real time as they have 90 minutes to get to safety before the next field of space junk passes.
But everything — and I do mean everything — stands in their way. The only missing menaces are Darth Vader and the creatures from Aliens.
Bullock's Stone speaks for all of us as she deals with each fresh horror with a "What now?" She does some of her best acting in years, her mood shifting from desperation to resignation with just a look. She is well cast as someone vulnerable, overmatched but with a backbone that surprises.
Cuarón, who directed Children of Men and the best Harry Potter movie (No. 3, Prisoner of Azkaban), uses the silence of space brilliantly: muffled, distant radio transmissions and shockingly violent but silent crashes, with only the sound of panting and faint yelping from our intrepid space explorers underscoring the disaster. They're hurled, yanked and thumped, and all we hear is their gasping, their crackling radios and a thunk if they hit a compartment of a space ship that has oxygen in it.
The parade of accidents takes Gravity close to the realm of melodrama, and the physics of it isn't flawless. But you'd have to go back to Apollo 13 and such '60s epics as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Marooned to find a film this determined to perfectly dramatize the very real perils of spaceflight.
Bullock and Clooney make their peril ours in this absolutely gorgeous, moving and sometimes exultant reminder that the real terrors of space are scary enough, even without throwing in invented bug-eyed monsters.
PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language. Warner Bros. 1:30. 2D only: Frankfort, Georgetown, Kentucky, Winchester. 2D and 3D: Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Movie Tavern, Nicholasville, Richmond, Woodhill.