"Gravity," the worst NASA recruiting video ever conceived, transports the old-fashioned shipwreck tale to low orbit around Earth. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts and float about as they run a bit of Hubble telescope tech support. Then, disaster strikes, and all they want is to get home, somehow. It is a story concept that dates back at least to Homeric epics, even if "Gravity" owes more to "2001: A Space Odyssey." It is as wondrous as either. Emotionally wrenching and visually exultant, "Gravity" borders on a masterwork. Let these words be spake not lightly: This is the rare film actually worth the exorbitant splurge of an IMAX 3D ticket.
The visuals, for starters, are miraculous. Rarely in cinematic history has so convincing a lie been committed to the screen. You know, logically, that this movie was not shot in outer space, because movie budgets do not yet run into the hundreds of billions of dollars, and who could cater that set, anyway? And yet! How else to explain the weightlessness? For "Gravity," director/producer Alfonso Cuarón ("Children of Men," "Y Tu Mamá También") opted not for the "Apollo 13" technique of yo-yoing his crew up and down in a freefalling Boeing. Instead he invented and appropriated, over the past five years, a system of harnesses and lights and computers and cameras and sets that could scarcely be more convincing. Even as Google Earth has dulled the awe of overhead planetary shots, the panoramas of islands and isthmuses and storms and cities and aurora borealis from space are nothing shy of mind-bending. The combination of physics and optics makes "Gravity" an instant technical touchstone, a waking dream.
To a spellbound brain, dangers seem more real, and as dangers seem real, so too do characters' fears. Cuarón wrote the script, along with his son, Jonás, to be as austere as Hollywood conventions would permit. Bullock is an introverted Midwestern doctor with six months' astronaut training, only remotely prepared for a mission gone wonky. Clooney's the veteran hand, hopeful that he might break a spacewalking record, calm and direct in the face of chaos. (In that helmet he also looks eerily like Buzz Lightyear.) The rest of the seven-person cast is heard but never really seen. To block shots that look this Pixar-perfect, Cuarón and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, a master of the unbroken take, required exceptionally rigid choreography. You can hear the rehearsal, alas. At times, it sounds stiff, in the way that video game dialogue might, or any time you drop human faces and voices into what is, essentially, an animated movie.
The rest of the production more than compensates. Steven Price's spare, tense score crescendos during moments of high disaster, screwing tight the tension as Cuarón lets the vacuum of space swallow any sounds that aren't transmitted through a glove or a suit. After the punctuations of chaos, silence and emptiness move into the screen and let the tiny humans fill the remainder. Clooney's fine here, and he serves his purpose capably, but the show belongs to Bullock, who reveals that her life on Earth makes space feel almost cuddly by comparison.
As she grapples with new despairs and old, she becomes our Odysseus, the brave and clever home-seeker, leaving a ruin of ships behind her. As she descends into her heart's darker corners, running out of air and heat in a yawning void, your space epic finds its meaning: a single human life weighted against the oceanic heavens, a speck in a hurricane. With its utterly convincing simulation of space, "Gravity" leverages beauty to convey beauty, collapsing the immensity of the planet and the universe into that windblown speck. Somehow it achieves the sort of visceral astonishment that drew humans to space in the first place. It is, in sum, no small wonder.