“Life in space is impossible.” That stark statement of scientific fact is one of the first things to appear on screen in “Gravity,” but before long, it is contradicted, or at least complicated. As our eyes (from behind 3-D glasses) adjust to the vast darkness, illuminated by streaks of sunlight refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere, we detect movement that is recognizably human and hear familiar voices. Those tiny figures bouncing around on that floating contraption — it looks like a mobile suspended from a child’s bedroom ceiling — are people. Scientists. Astronauts. Movie stars. (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in spacesuits, as Mission Specialist Ryan Stone and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski; Ed Harris, unseen and unnamed, as “Houston” down below).
The defiance of impossibility is this movie’s theme and its reason for being. But the main challenge facing the director, Alfonso Cuarón (who wrote the script with his son Jonás), is not visualizing the unimaginable so much as overcoming the audience’s assumption that we’ve seen it all before. After more than 50 years, space travel has lost some of its luster, and movies are partly to blame for our jadedness. It has been a long time since a filmmaker conjured the awe of “2001: A Space Odyssey” or the terror of “Alien” or captured afresh the spooky wonder of a trip outside our native atmosphere.
Mr. Cuarón succeeds by tethering almost unfathomably complex techniques — both digital and analog — to a simple narrative. “Gravity” is less a science-fiction spectacle than a Jack London tale in orbit. The usual genre baggage has been jettisoned: there are no predatory extraterrestrials, no pompous flights of allegory, no extravagant pseudo-epic gestures. Instead, there is a swift and buoyant story of the struggle for survival in terrible, rapidly changing circumstances. Cosmic questions about our place in the universe are not so much avoided as subordinated to more pressing practical concerns. How do you outrun a storm of debris? Launch a landing module without fuel? Decipher an instruction manual in Russian or Chinese?
It has recently been observed that not all of the film’s answers to these questions are strictly accurate. The course that Stone and Kowalski plot from the Hubble Space Telescope to the International Space Station would apparently not be feasible in real life. (On the other hand, I was relieved to learn that a fire extinguisher really can serve as a makeshift zero-G jetpack. Not a spoiler, just a word to the wise.) Surely, though, the standard for a movie like this one is not realism but coherence. Every true outlaw has a code. The laws of physics are no exception, and Mr. Cuarón violates them with ingenious and exuberant rigor.
The accidental explosion of a communications satellite silences Houston and, what’s worse, sends a blizzard of shrapnel hurtling toward the astronauts. Quite a bit goes wrong. Straps connecting astronauts to the relative security of their spacecraft are severed. Parachute lines foul engines. Fires break out inside vessels, and stuff outside is smashed to pieces. Not everyone survives. All of it — terrifyingly and marvelously — evades summary and confounds expectations. You have to see it to believe it.
And what you see (through the exquisitely observant lenses of the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) defies easy description. Stone and Kowalski’s orbital path is perched between the inky infinite and the green, cloud-swept face of home. The perspective is dazzling and jarring, and Mr. Cuarón allows a few moments of quiet, contemplative beauty to punctuate the busy, desperate activity of staying alive. Kowalski, generally an irreverent joker, pauses to savor the sun over the Ganges, and you may find yourself picking out other geographical details. Look, there’s Italy, and the Nile Valley. These reference points are as unsettling as they are reassuring, because they are glimpsed from a vantage point that is newly and profoundly alien.
That sense of estrangement owes a lot to Mr. Cuarón’s use of 3-D, which surpasses even what James Cameron accomplished in the flight sequences of “Avatar.” More than that film (and more than “Hugo” or “How to Train Your Dragon” or any other high-quality recent specimens), “Gravity” treats 3-D as essential to the information it wants to share. The reason for that is summed up in the title, which names an obvious missing element. Nothing in the movie — not hand tools or chess pieces, human bodies or cruise-ship-size space stations — rests within a stable vertical or horizontal plane. Neither does the movie itself, which in a little more than 90 minutes rewrites the rules of cinema as we have known them.
But maybe not quite all of them, come to think of it. The script is, at times, weighed down by some heavy screenwriting clichés. Some are minor, like the fuel gauge that reads full until the glass is tapped, causing the arrow to drop. More cringe-inducing is the tragic back story stapled to Stone, a doctor on her first trip into orbit. We would care about her even without the haunting memory of a dead child, who inspires a maudlin monologue and a flight of orchestral bathos in Steven Price’s otherwise canny and haunting score.
I will confess that the first time I saw “Gravity,” I found its talkiness annoying. Not just Ms. Bullock’s perky-anxious soliloquizing, but also Mr. Clooney’s gruff, regular-guy wisecracking. Doesn’t Stone say her favorite thing about space is the silence?
But a second viewing changed my mind a bit. It’s not that the dialogue improved — it will not be anyone’s favorite part of the movie — but rather that its relation to that silence became clearer. Stone and Kowalski jabber on, to themselves and each other and to Houston “in the blind,” partly to keep the terror of their situation at bay, to fight the overwhelming sense of how tiny and insignificant they are in the cosmos.
This assertion of identity is ridiculous and also, for that very reason, affecting. For all of Mr. Cuarón’s formal wizardry and pictorial grandeur, he is a humanist at heart. Much as “Gravity” revels in the giddy, scary thrill of weightlessness, it is, finally, about the longing to be pulled back down onto the crowded, watery sphere where life is tedious, complicated, sad and possible.
“Gravity” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Existential terror and the salty language it provokes.
Opens on Friday.
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki; edited by Alfonso Cuarón and Mark Sanger; music by Steven Price; production design by Andy Nicholson; costumes by Jany Temime; visual effects by Tim Webber; produced by Alfonso Cuarón and David Heyman; released by Warner Brothers Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 31 minutes.
WITH: Sandra Bullock (Ryan Stone), George Clooney (Matt Kowalski) and Ed Harris (Voice of Houston).