“Gravity” has a very simple, but very smart story. It also has astonishing visual effects, sound design and music, yet it focuses, first and foremost, on characters.
It’s a popcorn movie, with no important themes other than the triumph of the human spirit, but it’s so beautifully constructed and executed — and feels so bracingly new — it ranks with the greatest popcorn movies of the past 40 years, beginning with “Star Wars” and including any and all recent favorites.
As with those films, you may find your jaw dropping, your muscles worn out, your palms sweating and your brain humming, “How in the world did they do that?”
It begins with a trio of spacewalking astronauts trying to repair the Hubble telescope. Houston reports that flying debris is headed their way. It crashes into their space shuttle, the Explorer, and sends Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) spinning into space.
Her fellow traveler Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), whose suit has thrusters, goes after her. Together they discover that the Explorer is destroyed, and so they make their way to the next closest thing, a Russian satellite with escape pods.
In the best storytelling tradition, Cuaron and co-screenwriter (and son) Jonas Cuaron keep upping the ante, giving our space travelers more and more intensely gripping hurdles to mount.
But as director, Cuaron has used an array of long, unbroken shots to create an astonishing display of zero gravity, where friction doesn’t stop or slow down a moving body. As the characters try to grab on to objects while floating by, your entire body will twist and turn, trying to steer them from your seat.
Indeed, “Gravity” may be the most purely visceral movie experience in decades.
Happily, Cuaron offers rest periods and many moments of pure beauty and wonder. A picture of the Northern Lights from space, a little ball of flame floating in zero gravity, or Bullock refreshing her air intake and floating in a circle for several moments provide time in which the audience, too, can breathe.
To that end, even those who did not agree with Bullock's Oscar win for “The Blind Side” will find her worthy of one here.
Her director’s last effort was another great science-fiction movie, “Children of Men,” which was borne of ideas. This one celebrates sensation. And it deserves to be one.
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Written by Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron
Running time 1 hour, 30 minutes