You've never seen anything like "Gravity" before.
I was going to say, you've never seen a movie like "Gravity" before. But then I remembered how few hearty souls have actually walked in space. Heck, most of us aren't even astronauts. This remarkable film is about as close as we're going to get.
Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a Harvard-trained physician turned mission specialist on her maiden voyage, trying to forget the tragedy of losing her young daughter in a freak accident back on Earth.
George Clooney is veteran commander Matt Kowalski, a legendary space jockey on his last trip before he retires. Kowalski is given to telling long stories to mission control in Houston, but nobody minds. They're honored just to be at the other end of the headset.
He is George Clooney, after all, even if it's Bullock who does most of the heavy lifting in the film. Her role is both emotionally and physically demanding, putting her alone in most of scenes, all the while creating the impression of being weightless.
A 17-minute opening shot introduces the characters as Planet Earth provides the magnificent backdrop, its land masses and oceans slowly revolving below. It's a breathtaking view of our home in a way we've never seen before. This unique environment vies with Bullock and Clooney for our attention, a reminder that director-co-writer Alfonso Cuaron is really the star of the show.
Growing up in Mexico City, Cuaron wanted to be an astronaut, which explains his vast knowledge and passion for the subject. But rather than settling for an eye-popping sort of IMAX experience, he and his co-writer son, Jonas Cuaron, have created a spare, elegant screenplay that has Kowalski and Stone doing routine tasks in space when a shower of debris destroys their mother ship.
Tethered together in their spacesuits, their shuttle useless wreckage, the Earth a long way away, brings profound new meaning to the concept "lost in space."
Although "Gravity" rocketed to a $55 million opening weekend, some early reviewers felt its script was the weak link compared with the visuals. This may be because it avoids all of the "Star Trek" - "Star Wars" formulas we have come to associate with space movies.
Instead of cowboys-and-Indians or King Arthur's knights hurtling through the cosmos in spacecraft as labyrinthine as medieval castles, "Gravity" works its way through a variety of very real satellites, even providing instruction manuals. There's nothing glamorous or sexy about them; it's all engineering.
The freak disaster to their ship sets Kowalski and Stone on an outer-space odyssey to find another one - maybe Russian, maybe Chinese - offering a glimmer of hope of getting them home.
Before the movie is over, the audience has gained a new understanding of the geography of space and the challenges of navigating it. After watching Bullock, we feel we know the rudiments of operating a spacecraft ourselves.
The wonder of "Gravity" - one of them - is that it creates such a unique environment to tell such a basic story of the human will to survive. It's futuristic, primal, stupendous filmmaking - and the rare case where the 3-D is worth it.
All the uniqueness of "Gravity" unfortunately highlighted all the failings of its box-office rival last weekend, "Runner Runner." The glossy crime thriller features Clooney's "Argo" protege Ben Affleck, woefully miscast as the suave but lethal lord of an online gambling empire nestled safely offshore in the banana republic of Costa Rica. Justin Timberlake stars as a bright Princeton student drawn into this lurid world only to discover how toxic it is after he's in way over his head.
Sound familiar? Yes, you've seen it all before only better. Although "Runner Runner" wants to be a fable about the dangers of flying high, unlike "Gravity," it never gets off the ground.
* Contact Rick Chatenever at firstname.lastname@example.org