Prepare to be visually wowed and dramatically cowed by a gripping survival thriller all about a feisty female astronaut from Lake Zurich.
Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity" simultaneously terrorizes us with the agoraphobia of outer space and the claustrophobia of space suits.
"Gravity"★ ★ ★ ★
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron
Other: A Warner Bros. release. Rated PG-13 for language, intense scenes. 91 minutes
Its nimble, acrobatic camera movements are amazing constructions, effortlessly swinging from the vastness of being lost in a black universe to the intimacy of being inside an astronaut's helmet.
"Gravity" wants to knock our eyeballs around in a giant, orbiting pinball game, and it succeeds.
Many long, long, long single shots (millennia longer than the jaw-dropping, single-take sequences in Cuaron's earlier "Children of Men") are masterpieces of motion and objects, with Emmanuel Lubezki's crisply composed 3-D camera work smoothly sweeping from wide cover shots to personal point-of-view shots and back again -- with no (apparent) edits.
Here's one action movie that races breathlessly -- sometimes literally so -- from one life-threatening catastrophe to the next, a quality that becomes this movie's biggest asset and its chief shortcoming.
Sandra Bullock goes full-throttle action star as Dr. Ryan Stone (yes, Ryan), a medical engineer from Lake Zurich (yes, our Lake Zurich) on her first space mission. It's the last one for seasoned vet Matt Kowalsky (a charming George Clooney, replacing original star Robert Downey Jr.).
After some introductory banter and a bit of clever "Apollo 13" foreshadowing by Kowalsky ("Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission!"), the disembodied voice of "Apollo 13" star Ed Harris warns them and a third astronaut out on a spacewalk that Russian satellite debris is headed their way and they'd better take cover.
The debris hits with more than hurricane force, wiping out the shuttle, killing the third astronaut and leaving Kowalsky and Stone tethered to what remains of their temporary extraterrestrial home.
In short order, only Stone remains, and the rest of "Gravity" charts her desperate attempt to stay alive long enough to figure out how to get back to terra firma.
Cuaron is an extremely visceral director whose works immerse us inside the cinematic experience.
Here, he eschews the traditional wires, blue screens and brief cuttings common to outer space dramas. He takes space effects to new, fun frontiers utilizing digitally created sets and industrial robots to hold and move his actors.
Even without the remarkably restrained 3-D effects, "Gravity" pulls us into Stone's space suit (sometimes quite literally) as she uses brains, nerves, patience and training to keep her wits about her while fighting off her dwindling resistance to just let the darkness take her.
Bullock has racked up a lot of career miles since her action movie debut in "Speed." Still, Dr. Stone doesn't stretch much from Bullock's standard stock character of a super smart, socially ill-at-ease woman who's a bit of a bumbler.
Bullock's highly physical performance hits all the right dramatic notes, but Cuaron's relentless pace and endless succession of life-threatening complications don't leave much room for us to bond with her Dr. Stone on a deeper level.
(By comparison, Ron Howard's true story of "Apollo 13" packed in more nerve-wracking suspense and concern for the astronauts' safety, despite the fact we all knew it had a happy ending.)
At one point in "Gravity," Dr. Stone sheds her space suit and folds herself into a floating fetal position, a wonderfully wrought image designed to inject some necessary vulnerability into her situation.
It's a nice touch in a spectacular motion picture celebrating the smarts and survival instincts of a woman from Lake Zurich.