By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
What happens to tears shed in outer space? It's a question that Hollywood's typical treks to the stars never consider but Gravity does.
Alfonso Cuarón's movie is a technical and emotional spectacle, creating a how-did-they-do-that illusion of weightlessness in all its beauty and peril. Its visual amazements are many, from calamitous space shrapnel decimating a NASA mission to a surviving astronaut hovering in fetal position, framed as if in a womb.
Those tears are hers, spilling from ducts and floating away as we haven't seen before, like a lot of what happens in this movie.
"I hate space," rookie astronaut Ryan Stone curses at a tense juncture of Gravity, a morsel of levity in a relentlessly anxious situation. Ryan is played by Sandra Bullock, subduing her charm for a character haunted by the past, panicked by the present, and with her future seriously in doubt.
Ryan is part of a space shuttle team repairing the Hubble telescope when Russia accidentally destroys one of its own satellites, setting off a buckshot wave of debris that creates more with each collision. The shuttle and Hubble are struck, and Ryan is set adrift into the dark void, wildly spinning thanks to ruthless laws of physics.
She's retrieved by her veteran colleague Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and the countdown clock begins. Oxygen is running out, and the debris cloud will orbit back again in around 90 minutes. Cuarón and his co-writing son Jonas create an impressive range of dangers — there's a video game level feel to Ryan's scuttling from one space oasis to another — and episodes of quiet despair, giving the audience time to breathe.
All this could be run-of-the-thrill action except Cuarón is equally concerned with raising the aesthetic bar for such movies. Gravity is a game-changer like Avatar in the realm of digital 3-D special effects, inventing trickeries to be applied by future filmmakers and possibly never improved upon. Yet its spirit is closer to Avatar's smarter descendants, Hugo and Life of Pi, with the gimmicks embellishing, not driving, the material. Less Cameron, more Kubrick.
It's a difference obvious from the movie's stunning opening act, an apparently unbroken 13-minute shot establishing the characters, crisis and Cuarón's limitless ambition. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera seems as unbound by gravity as the astronauts themselves, circling their struggles or sneaking inside Ryan's helmet for her panicked point of view. In such moments the movie feels claustrophobic and agoraphobic at once, a visceral experience as vast as a solar system.
As amazing as the movie's first hour is, it's the final act that confidently announces Gravity as something weightier than a mere outer space blockbuster. It begins with Ryan's chance radio contact with Earth, a strange encounter resigning her to a fate seeming certain. Then it isn't, thanks in part to a twist of magical realism that's puzzling, amusing, melancholy and ultimately inspiring. Only a movie already so splendidly steeped in risks could take another like it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.