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Facing very great odds in ‘Gravity’

WARNER BROS. PICTURES

As sheer technical feat, “Gravity” is pretty astounding. The astoundingness begins at the very beginning, with an immense tracking shot that locates us high above Earth on a space walk with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The shot is so effortless, it isn’t even experienced as a shot. It feels just there, placed in an Earth orbit of its own. Think of it as the flip side of the now-legendary tracking shot in Alfonso Cuarón’s previous film, “Children of Men.” The presentation of Clive Owen’s fitful, fearful dash under fire is so bravura — with its urgency, explosions, and death — it’s all about calling attention to itself, and rightly so.

“Gravity” is full of special-effects wonders: objects floating in space and spaceship interiors, people floating in space and spaceship interiors, the look of Earth and the planets and stars as seen from space. There’s a sense of wonder here that’s at the heart of science fiction but rarely captured in science fiction films.

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Yet the most astounding special effect of all isn’t computer generated. It predates computers by almost a half century. It dates to the first close-up appearing onscreen, and the special effect in question is the sight of a human face as it expresses thought and emotion.

Even Bullock fans would have to agree that she’s not exactly the most expressive of actresses. And in much of the film she’s at a further disadvantage, her face seen behind a space-helmet visor. It doesn’t matter. Nothing in “Gravity” is as moving or startling or, well, special as the sight of Bullock’s face filling the screen as it variously shows fear and resolve and confusion and relief and, yes, wonder.

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