ADVERTISEMENT

“Gravity” reveals, among many other things, how impoverished movie critics have become.

So many decades of unfettered hype and rhetorical inflation have left the tribe without an appropriate vocabulary to properly describe the first 20 minutes of “Gravity.”

“Amazing” is dubious. So is “astonishing.” Both have been so cheapened by the superlative machines of modern journalism and the exclamation point blizzards of modern advertising that the words underwhelm.

So let me say it this way: Try to remember a point in your early life when “amazing” and “astonishing” denoted things the dictionary promised – things you could feel physically – and apply them to the first 20 minutes of “Gravity.”

Let me put it another way. Those 20 minutes are so good – and so unlike any depiction of outer space weightlessness I’ve seen before – that they almost made me sick. I say that without any prejudice or derogatory intention at all. I now know that I don’t have the “right stuff.” It’s knowledge I cherish, not knowledge I resent.

It’s not for nothing that when astronauts train for outer space weightlessness in a chamber aboard a training airplane, the airplane’s nickname is “the vomit comet.” Stanley Kubrick’s simulation of weightlessness in “2001” is an artist’s fraction of the visceral simulation of weightlessness in the incredible first 20 minutes of “Gravity.”

What we’re watching are two astronauts on a space walk trying to make repairs on the exterior of the Hubble telescope. Sandra Bullock plays the scientist who is making the repairs. George Clooney plays the hard-bitten space cowboy and superior who is overseeing the endeavor and doing the lion’s share of communicating with headquarters down on Earth (i.e, the voice of Ed Harris at Mission Control).

Our space cowboy is a jokester and a hot dog. He’s ever so close to holding the record for the longest space walk, and he wants it, he really wants it. But hotshot that he is, he’s also nothing if not careful and experienced. He’s the consummate space pro. A surplus of the “right stuff” might have gotten him the job in the first place, and it’s certainly reassuring to his wary scientist partner, but all his hours logged on the job have given him as much knowledge of what to do out there as anyone that scientist could find.

She isn’t there because she has the “right stuff.” She’s there to fix the telescope. And learn from it. To uphold the glory of science in outer space.

All of which is fine. So what we’re watching is the most persuasive simulation of weightlessness on film you’ve ever seen in a movie’s depiction of outer space.

And then when the two astronauts become untethered by some sudden space debris orbiting earth at thousands of miles per hour, we’re watching the most literal possible representation of the primal human terror – of being completely alone in a hostile universe.

Not metaphorically, but literally.

The megatons of cheese that have been served with “amazing” and “astonishing” don’t entirely help with the primitive exclamation “wow,” either, although that word, too, may well occur to you.

Writer/director Alfonso Cuarón – one of the remarkable Mexican directors who have helped remake movies in the past decade – combined CGI with a new photographic apparatus to maneuver around the actors in such a way as to make it seem completely as if they’re adrift without gravity in the cosmos.

What happens after the first 20 minutes follows the actors as they try to survive, much less cope. It is wrenchingly powerful and harrowingly imagined.

I have nothing but admiration, too, for the story Cuarón’s schema is trying to tell about Bullock’s character, who is the movie’s centerpiece in what is certainly the best performance in a career that has been probably underrated too often.

Cuarón is, at first, asking us to live in outer space. And then, as the movie proceeds, he is trying to tell us about the heroine’s terrors of inner space.

Conceptually, I have nothing but admiration for that.

If it seems as if the exploration of her inner space is so much more familiar, domesticated and easy to handle in the movie than a hostile universe we’ve never quite seen this way before, it is still a hugely exciting and rewarding film, right down to its final frame.

Bullock is terrific. So, in his wise-guy bravado and melancholy, is Clooney.

However much the film contracts as it proceeds, it still seems to me something of a milestone. By all means see it in the gaudiest visual format that’s convenient, too.

Gravity

Four stars

Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Running time: 90 minutes

Rating: PG-13 for intense

perilous sequences, some disturbing images and

brief strong language

The Lowdown: Two astronauts fixing the Hubble telescope are unmoored by space debris and are set adrift in the universe.

email: jsimon@buffnews.com