Out of this world

Does this count as a “meet cute”?

Does this count as a “meet cute”?

Rated 5.0

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney have the worst day ever in space. It’s hard enough for astronauts to contend with Newton’s laws; these two have to grapple with Murphy’s. Everything that can go wrong does.

Their mission, and the movie, begins routinely enough—if the sight of Earth from orbit (for us, in 3-D) can be called routine. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) tootles around the space shuttle as it hangs secured to the Hubble Space Telescope, playing with his jet pack, while specialist Ryan Stone (Bullock) bends earnestly over one of Hubble’s circuit modules, doing whatever it is she came up there for.

Kowalski continues to orbit the orbiting shuttle, listening to country music over his communication lines (until Stone politely asks him to shut it off so she can concentrate) and regaling the shuttle crew and Houston with stories they’ve all heard a hundred times. (The voice of Mission Control is Ed Harris, reprising his similar role in Apollo 13—an impish touch by director Alfonso Cuarón, given that Kowalski and Stone are about to face a crisis that will make Apollo 13’s ordeal look like child’s play.) Oh, by the way, Houston tells Kowalski there’s some space debris flying off from a missile strike by the Russians shooting down one of their own spy satellites—but nothing to worry about, it’s in a lower orbit.

Suddenly, the worry meter flies off the high end. That debris has hit other satellites, then others, causing a chain reaction that sends an avalanche of jagged fragments right their way. Houston orders an immediate abort and return to the shuttle, but the rookie Stone delays just long enough that the debris storm hits them before they can return to the shuttle. Her dallying probably saves her and Kowalski from instant death, as the debris all but demolishes the shuttle and kills every other member of the crew.

When the wreckage passes, Stone and Kowalski are alive and safe, but only for the moment. They’re alone in space, with nobody to talk to: The chain reaction has wiped out the communication satellites linking them to Houston. That orbiting debris will come back around in about 90 minutes, so their only hope is to make their way to the International Space Station—hoping it survived the storm that just hit them—and use one if its emergency pods to return to Earth. But the station is a hundred miles away—and their oxygen and the fuel in Kowalski’s jet pack are both running low.

All this is in the first 10 minutes. What happens next, and for the rest of the picture, is something no decent reviewer should dare to spoil. Not to mince words, Gravity is one of the great white-knuckle thrillers of all time. This is the kind of film that pushes suspense to the breaking point and beyond.

Alfonso and Jon&#;aacute;s Cuarón, father and son, have constructed a script as airtight as the pressure suits their astronauts wear, without a wasted syllable and just enough featherlight touches to keep the tension from becoming entirely unbearable—as when the grisly interior of the wrecked shuttle is leavened, ever so slightly, by the sight of a Marvin the Martian bobblehead floating past our eyes. The story is so engrossing that director Alfonso’s virtuosic touches go almost unnoticed, so organic are they to the picture as a whole: the stunning visual effects, the long takes and brilliant camera work (in one amazing shot, the camera glides from space through the faceplate of Stone’s helmet into the suit with her—we hear Sandra Bullock’s natural voice in our ears—then back out into space again).

Bullock’s performance as Stone is Gravity’s centerpiece, and it makes the picture a virtual one-woman show. Like the movie itself, Bullock is brilliant, taking us inch by inch through Stone’s alternating panic, despair, hope and hopelessness in the chaotic struggle to survive. I’m betting that at least one of this season’s Oscar nominations is firmly spoken for.

And maybe others. Will there be a better movie this year? Perhaps. But like what happens to Kowalski and Stone, that’s hard to imagine.