It's quite possible well-traveled astronauts and learned astrophysicists will have their issues with Gravity. When Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space mission, and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a NASA veteran, float alongside their shuttle, the Explorer, and suddenly find themselves ricocheting around in a storm of debris, they're transformed into human pinballs. If it weren't for the fact there is no sound in space, the caroming 'nauts would be ringing bells and buzzers as their suited-up bodies hit this fuselage and that solar panel. Bing, bong, bang. Shhhh.
But for those of us who have not yet been in orbit around Earth or spent years immersed in Newtonian algorithms, Gravity - which opens with one of the most masterly continuous shots in cinema history - feels absolutely authentic. A wildly suspenseful zero-g tale of survival 350 miles beyond the ozone layer, Alfonso Cuarón's space saga is emotionally jolting - and physically jolting, too.
I can't think of another movie in recent years where I've felt so wholly invested in the struggles of the protagonists - popcorn-spilling, armrest-gripping, white-knuckling commitment to the characters and their life-and-death scenarios.
More than four years in the making, Gravity breaks new ground in its seamless mix of CG and live action, the technological innovations required to pull this epic stunt off. But it's a testimony to the writing (the filmmaker's son Jonás Cuarón collaborated on the screenplay), and to the note-perfect performances of Bullock and Clooney, that you never find yourself thinking, "How did they do that?"
The reality is a given. It's the human story that matters - how are Ryan and Kowalski going to get themselves out of this fix? (And what kind of a name is that for a woman, anyway, he wonders.)
In a tradition of space movies that goes back more than 100 years, from A Trip to the Moon to Star Wars to 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Cuaróns' Gravity shows no signs of artifice, blue screens, green screens, or puppet strings. When the astronauts do their slo-mo cartwheels, tethered (for a time) to the ship, or to each other, backdropped by the cloud-streaked blue-green orb called Earth, it's simply breathtaking. We could be watching a space walk on YouTube (if the great Emmanuel Lubezki were the cinematographer, that is).
Bullock, who spends a good deal of Gravity in a spacesuit, her face behind a domed helmet visor - caught in reflection, in both senses - projects a palpable sense of adrenalized dread. If her Ryan is going to make it through this ordeal, she needs to summon all her skills, training (not that much of it, in a shuttle simulator), and clarity of mind.
"Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission," Clooney's Kowalski cracks early on in Gravity, before things really do turn bad - so bad that communication between the orbiting NASA crew and Mission Control is lost. And if Clooney sounds (and looks) like Buzz Lightyear here and there, that's OK - a movie this gut-wrenching needs a bit of comic relief.
Gravity is a classic tale of ordinary people driven to extraordinary things in their effort to survive. But there's a spiritual element, too: Watching the Earth, turning and glinting in the sun, framed by endless deep blue-black, puts all us specks of humanity in context. Death is everything, but it is also nothing. The world will keep on turning.
Gravity is like a perfect pop song (and remindful of a few great ones, like David Bowie's "Space Oddity" - "here I am floating round my tin can"). The film catches you in all sorts of ways. It is quick, smart, economical, thrilling. And when it's over - yes, what goes up must come down - it leaves you wanting more.
To which, I can only suggest you see it again.
Gravity **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón. With Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Distributed by Sony Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (violence, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters