Moments later, Mission Control's warnings become more dire. The pieces of the Russian satellite have caused a chain reaction in orbit, knocking out more satellites and creating a debris field that's hurtling toward Explorer.
When the debris hits, it's a catastrophe that leaves Stone and Kowalski alone in space, with no one on Explorer alive to help and no one on Earth available by radio.
As desperate and dramatic as the situation is, the way Cuarón has visualized the disaster is what's truly compelling. Everything feels filmed on location, as if actually shot in outer space. (The 3-D visuals augment this, and this may be a rare instance where springing for the IMAX screening is worth the price bump.)
The action feels seamless, as if captured by a single camera even though it's surely constructed by bits and pieces of animation and live-action performance. The camera, controlled by cinematographer Emanuel Lubezki (who collaborated with Cuarón on "Children of Men" and "Y Tu Mamá También"), often shifts on a dime. One second it captures Stone spinning out of control, then locks onto Stone while the background gyrates behind her. The effect is stunning, at once conveying the disorientation of zero gravity and the vast isolation of space.
As dazzling and photo-realistic as the effects are, the humanity of the two performances carries the film's emotional force.
Bullock, usually onscreen alone, bears the major load, smartly underplaying Stone as she applies her scientist's analytical skills and keen survival instincts to a seemingly impossible problem. Clooney, in the smaller role, is charming as the self-assured space jockey, and his reassuring humor gives the movie a needed dose of lightness.
"Gravity" is, in the end, a perfect melding of the technological and the emotional. The precision of the effects allows the viewer to take the outer-space locale for granted, and the depth of Bullock's performance puts the focus where it belongs on the intensely universal story of a human being going to heroic measures just to get home.
A disaster in space becomes a powerful story of survival in a movie whose visual wonders match its intense performances.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens Friday, Oct. 4.
Rating • PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language
Running time • 91 minutes.