There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than having Sandra Bullock repeatedly tumble into your lap.
At least that’s what it feels like in the immersive, in-your-face 3-D version of “Gravity,” a magnificent spectacle of a film seemingly engineered to generate as many rave reviews as complaints of motion sickness.
Inexperienced astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) repairs the Hubble Telescope during a spacewalk while her mission commander, seen-it-all veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), tests a new jetpack. Kowalski drifts in and out of the frame, Hank Williams’ “Angels Are Hard to Find” blaring over his headset, while retelling tired stories that the crew at mission control knows by heart. It’s Stone’s first time in orbit, but it’s Kowalski’s last, and he’s relishing every moment.
The scene, an uninterrupted bit of beauty, serves as a dose of serenity leading up to the mayhem that’s just over the horizon.
In the process of destroying one of their satellites, Russia has unleashed an ever-expanding debris field that gathers mass and speed with each object it destroys while turning some of Earth’s most sophisticated technology into shrapnel.
That debris wipes out the Hubble, untethering Stone and sending her spiraling deeper and deeper into the darkness. As she flips and spins wildly out of control, unable to get her bearings, the shots from Stone’s point-of-view — think putting one of those GoPro cameras in your clothes dryer — will leave you nearly as disoriented as she is.
Kowalski eventually reaches her and drags her by a tether back to their shuttle only to find it’s been crippled, the rest of the crew has been killed and the debris has knocked out all communication with mission control in Houston. Much like a sci-fi version of “Open Water,” they’re as alone as two people can be.
Only five other actors are credited, all for voice work, including Ed Harris as the head of mission control. And aside from a couple of shots of their doomed colleagues’ lifeless bodies, “Gravity” is quite literally a two-person show.
Clooney has the largely thankless task of essentially being Clooney: charming, confident and cool under pressure. But if you think that’s easy, you try being George Clooney for a while and see how that works out.
Bullock gets the meatier, if mostly reactive, role. Damaged from the loss of her young daughter, Stone spends most of the just-long-enough 90 minutes careening between hope and resignation. She ends up having to say plenty of things that likely would have been internalized if she weren’t in a movie. But she’s also the source of one of “Gravity’s” signature shots: the sheer gorgeousness of a single tear floating in zero gravity.
In a refreshing change of pace, and a clear sign that Hollywood has finally run out of summer movies, Kowalski and Stone aren’t out to save the world. They’re just trying to save themselves.
Stone’s panicked flailings have used up most of her oxygen. Kowalski burned off most of his jetpack’s thrusters getting to her. As they drift, ever so slowly, to what they hope will be the safety of the also-damaged International Space Station, Stone counts down the final percentages of her oxygen supply. It’s an agonizing voyage across the void that’s bound to leave moviegoers almost as breathless.
There’s far more to “Gravity” than that, as Kowalski and especially Stone endure one calamity after another. But to talk more about the plot would shortchange the movie’s sense of awe. Directing a script he wrote with his son Jonas, Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) has delivered a stunning technical achievement.
You know Bullock and Clooney aren’t really in outer space. At least that’s what your mind will tell you. But from time to time, the astonishingly realistic “Gravity” will make you forget. It’s hard to fathom that a movie could look this good.
“Gravity,” though, is a feast for the senses. From Stone’s labored breathing to the periodic transmissions from Earth to the stretches of almost utter silence, this certain best-picture nominee sounds almost as good as it looks.
Just be sure to bring along the Dramamine if you’re at all susceptible.
Because although it may be true that in space no one can hear you scream, in a movie theater everyone can hear you if you hurl.
Christopher Lawrence reviews movies for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.