In Gravity, George Clooney plays a veteran astronaut who looks amusingly like Buzz Lightyear, and Sandra Bullock is a medical engineer who is taking her first voyage into space and is having a hard time keeping her lunch down. They float around in the inky silent darkness, bobbing and gliding, with Earth spread out beneath them like a giant luminescent screensaver. Even when tethered to a spacecraft, the two are really out there, exhilaratingly and terrifyingly free. The miracle of the movie is the way that director Alfonso Cuarón, using special effects and 3-D with a nearly poetic simplicity and command, places the audience right up there in space along with them. Gravity is an awesome technological daydream of a movie, one that might be classified as science fiction, except that it isn't a futuristic fantasy. It's a tale of disaster and grief and survival rooted in the possibilities of space travel as they exist today. Part of what makes the film so thrilling is that it gives its characters no easy outs.
The famous 10-minute tracking shot in Cuarón's Children of Men was a bravura act of staging, yet watching it, you could tell that it was thought-out and choreographed. In Gravity, though, the director works in such an ingeniously flowing and sustained way that his images all but transcend the essential visual grammar of ''the shot.'' The camera glides through space, twirling and doubling back, following the characters through pod doors and into the cramped interiors of satellites and then out again, giving the entire movie the spontaneous feel of a single unbroken shot a free-floating galactic reverie.
At the beginning we hear radio burbles of talk between the astronauts and Houston, and then, almost imperceptibly, a spacecraft drifts into view from the right side of the screen it's a U.S. shuttle, and the astronauts are walking outside of it, attempting to repair a problem on the ship. You'll surely be reminded of 2001: A Space Odyssey, because what Cuarón echoes from Kubrick's great film and what still seems eerily surreal in an outer-space movie is the creeping rhythm of space, the weightlessness that places everything in a trance, turning the action into moment-to-moment semi-slow motion, a feeling of life suspended. Simply as an out-of-this-world, zero-friction ''ride,'' Gravity is unforgettable, yet the real essence of Cuarón's achievement is that the film's technical virtuosity and its emotional grip become one.
Clooney's Matt Kowalski and Bullock's Ryan Stone are on a routine mission, but then there's a bulletin from Houston. A Russian satellite has exploded, causing a chain reaction. A shower of debris is about to come flying right at them, so they must abort the mission. It's too late, though: The debris hits them, full force (the 3-D places us right in the hurtling metal thick of it), tearing the ship apart. Seconds later, there is no ship. They are lost in space.
The ebb and flow of Gravity's story is deeply organic it seems to be making itself up as it goes along, and that's how it hooks us. Yet what sustains our absorption is a rather tricky synthesis between our involvement in the characters' plight and our head-scratching wonder at the matter-of-fact way that the film brings the physical realities of space to life: the sheer cosmic terror of it, the images of satellites cluttered with drifting matter, from chess rooks to tears. The actors are phenomenal. Clooney shows a haunting chivalry beneath his bluster, and Bullock is as desperate and resourceful and anxious and brave as Sigourney Weaver in the last half of Alien. When Stone wriggles, slowly, out of her space suit, we realize that we're seeing a tale of rebirth, and Bullock's acting attains a new purity. She floats through this movie yet grounds it, letting Gravity connect with all of us these days who feel just a little adrift. A