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We have liftoff

Gravity an outer-worldly, wonderfully grounded journey

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Gravity isn't just a film. It's a phenomenon.

The movie is being acclaimed by critics, some of whom are filled with such urgent cinematic excitement that they say things like, "Don't Even Read This Review: Just Go See Gravity." One gobsmacked reviewer admits wanting to grab strangers in the street and drag them into the theatre.

The movie, directed by Mexican-born Alfonso Cuaròn, is also drawing big audiences. It has already broken box office records for October openings and set personal bests for stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock.

And it has been endorsed by Buzz Aldrin, a man who walked on the moon.

What's going on? Most of the talk -- from critics, crowds and astronauts alike -- is about Gravity as a feat of revolutionary movie-making. But many aspects of the film are recognizable, even retro. Maybe that's why it works. Gravity is packed with whizz-bang technical stuff but battened with humble little human details. It sets new 21st-century levels for 3D-Imax visual achievement, but something about the story is familiar and old-fashioned, with a surge of gee-whiz innocence and excitement that I remember from being a kid. These aren't so much contradictions as opposing poles being held together by, well, gravitational force.

I grew up at a time when space was super-cool. I remember being allowed to stay up and watch the moon landing, and let me tell you, this was an era when children weren't allowed to stay up for anything.

I'm not sure when the idea of people exploring space became ho-hum, but the movies soon reflected this general indifference by deciding that space travel needed monsters or malevolent aliens or massive asteroids or zero-gravity sex to make it interesting.

Gravity reminds us that space travel -- just space travel, all by itself -- is awesome. And it is awesome in the strict, old-school sense of that term, meaning that it inspires awe, a wondering, reverential feeling for something immeasurably greater than ourselves.

Cuaròn achieves this awesomeness with cinematic spectacle and CGI tricks that are somehow eye-popping without being show-offy. These are the best kind of special effects, embedded into the movie so seamlessly that you don't even think about them as effects. You just see them as part of the universe that you've entered.

For much of the film, this is a universe of unimaginable immensity and silence. Gravity creates an unsettling, existential vision of the void, and it's that spooky emptiness that's showcased in its trailers. But if the movie starts on a cosmic scale, it also zooms down to space travel's nitty-gritty, nuts-and-bolts level. (Literally nuts and bolts -- one of the film's zingy 3D effects is a detached bolt that floats toward us, hovering in the theatre.) These parts of the film are crowded and cluttered and very human, reminding us that space travel is a marvel of human ingenuity but also prey to human error.

Cuaròn handles the human factor in an interesting way. The movie casts two of Hollywood's brightest stars and then sticks them in bulgy, beauty-obliterating spacesuits. Clooney plays Matt Kowalski, who wears his experience with typical Clooney-esque jauntiness, pretending to be the astro-version of a lunch-bucket guy. "I just drive the bus," he says. Of course, Matt is also an astronaut, so when deadly space debris from a Russian satellite hits the space station, he is quietly competent and courageous, his Right Stuff-ness immediately rising to the surface.

Clooney's unassuming heroism hits a nostalgic note. Gravity also reaches back to the tradition of Hollywood astronaut movies with the key casting of Ed Harris. In The Right Stuff, Harris played astronaut John Glenn, and in Apollo 13, he was unflappable NASA flight director Gene Kranz. In Gravity, Harris plays Mission Control, who could almost keep you tethered to Earth with the sound of his reassuring Midwestern voice.

Gravity might reference movies that call up lines of all-American alpha males walking in slow motion, but it also looks toward the future. It's no accident that the film is carried by a woman. Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a rookie who during training could barely operate the flight simulator without crashing but who is forced to summon up all her strength, will and intelligence to survive when her mission goes wrong. And this isn't just NASA's show anymore (probably just as well, what with the funding issues). Stone ends up relying on equipment from the Russians and the Chinese, in an outer-space environment that reflects the global realities of contemporary Earth.

Charting Clooney and Bullock's ordeal, Cuaròn captures moments of chilly, Kubrickian sci-fi sublime, but Gravity also works as an emotional space opera, occasionally threatening to become a bit of a weepie. (It turns out that when you cry in zero gravity, the tears just float away.) Ultimately, the story is about overcoming obstacles, not just the immutable laws of physics but the demons of personal despair.

In the end, Gravity is a film that's both spacey and grounded, wondrously strange and recognizably human. This is a space movie for the age of Chris Hadfield, that wonderfully friendly and accessible Canadian astronaut who invited us all up to the space station for a visit. Hadfield showed us that even when space exploration is demystified, it is still eye-openingly, mind-blowingly incredible. Gravity's ambitious, out-of-this-world reach may be getting most of the attention, but it's the film's down-to-earth realism that makes it truly astonishing.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 12, 2013 D12

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