Sandra Bullock, left, and George Clooney adrift in space in the new film ‘Gravity,’ at Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, North Adams Movieplex 8,
Sandra Bullock, left, and George Clooney adrift in space in the new film ‘Gravity,’ at Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, North Adams Movieplex 8, and Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington. (Associated Press / Warner Bros.)

What happens to tears shed in outer space? It's a question that Hollywood's typical treks to the stars never consider but "Gravity" does.

Alfonso Cuaron's movie is a technical and emotional spectacle, creating a how-did-they-do-that illusion of weightlessness in all its beauty and peril. Its visual amazements are many, from calamitous space shrapnel decimating a NASA mission to a surviving astronaut hovering in fetal position.

Those tears are hers, spilling from ducts and floating away as we haven't seen before, like a lot of what happens in this movie.

"I hate space," rookie astronaut Ryan Stone curses at a tense juncture of "Gravity," a morsel of levity in a relentlessly anxious situation. Ryan is played by Sandra Bullock, subduing her charm for a character haunted by the past, panicked by the present, and with her future seriously in doubt.

Ryan is part of a space shuttle team repairing the Hubble telescope when Russia accidentally destroys one of its own satellites, setting off a buckshot wave of debris that creates more with each collision. The shuttle and Hubble are struck, and Ryan is set adrift into the dark void, wildly spinning thanks to ruthless laws of physics.

She's retrieved by her veteran colleague Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and the countdown clock begins. Oxygen is running out, and the debris cloud will orbit back again in around 90 minutes.

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"Gravity" is a gamechanger like "Avatar" in the realm of digital 3-D special effects. Yet the gimmicks embellish, not drive, the material.

It's a difference obvious from the movie's stunning opening act, an apparently unbroken 13-minute shot establishing the characters, crisis and Cuaron's limitless ambition. Emmanuel Lubezki's camera seems as unbound by gravity as the astronauts themselves.

The final act confidently announces "Gravity" as something weightier than a mere outer space blockbuster. It begins with Ryan's chance radio contact with Earth, a strange encounter resigning her to a fate seeming certain. Then it isn't, thanks in part to a twist that's puzzling, amusing, melancholy and ultimately inspiring. Only a movie already so splendidly steeped in risks could take. another like it.