Sandra Bullock, below left, and George Clooney are astronauts facing mind-bending peril 400 miles above Earth in writer-director Alfonso Cuaron's 'Gravity,' a spellbinding adventure that works on every level. (Warner Bros. Pictures photos)
When the spooky, riveting trailer for “Gravity” began airing on TV on seemingly continuous loop a few weeks ago, it swiftly generated more buzz than any trailer in recent memory.
It consisted of a single scene featuring stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts on a NASA spacewalk who get trashed by a wave of orbiting satellite debris, sending a panicked Bullock spinning off into that deep, dark void where no one can hear you scream.
Once the impact of the scene wore off, the question swiftly arose: How could acclaimed director Alfonso Cuaron, making his first film since 2006’s stunning “Children of Men,” possibly stretch out that scene to feature length?
The answer: brilliantly.
Just as the landmark “2001: A Space Odyssey” broke new ground way back in 1968, “Gravity” feels like a similar evolutionary milestone. No exaggeration, it’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen — a display of stunning technical prowess, gorgeous design, powerhouse acting and riveting story.
And it delivers the goods in a remarkably thrifty 90 minutes while packing more jackhammer wallops than any film of twice that length.
The film is just too good to reveal anything more than the bare-bones setup.
Mission leader Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is a cocky veteran astronaut on his final voyage before retirement, while scientist Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a green rookie on her first space hop. They’ve ridden the Space Shuttle Enterprise almost 400 miles above the Earth to make repairs to the hobbled Hubble Space Telescope.
Kowalski cracks jokes in an effort to ease Stone’s nervousness, telling Mission Control: “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.”
But that particular joke proves ominously prescient when Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris, Mr. Right Stuff himself — a very cool touch) tells them to abort the spacewalk and hightail it out of there.
Seems the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and a wave of debris is hurtling their way at warp speed. But they can’t evade quickly enough, and their shuttle suffers “catastrophic damage.”
So begins a chain reaction of mind-bending events that simply does … not … stop until the final credits roll.
The relentless narrative pace sparks a deeply visceral physical reaction. For large swaths of the film, my heart was high in my throat, my palms were sweating, my neck hairs were standing at attention. More than once, I realized I was unconsciously holding my breath.
And if you are at all prone to motion sickness or vertigo, you’d better stock up on Dramamine beforehand. Otherwise, your popcorn bucket may end up pulling double duty.
Making this film required creating new gear and techniques (the details are recounted in the current Rolling Stone, the one with tongue-wagging Miley Cyrus on the cover).
And it’s the relatively rare film made with a dedicated, purposeful eye toward amplifying its IMAX 3-D effects to the highest possible level; if you see only one film in IMAX 3-D for the rest of your days, this is the one.
Yet, unlike some films in which the tech becomes an end unto itself, Cuaron, who co-wrote the script with his son Jonas, never loses sight of the deep humanity that powers the story. In one wondrous scene, a weeping Stone’s tears gently slide off her face in zero-G and float away like delicate, shimmering pearls.
The Cuarons flesh out their leads in other similarly spare and subtle ways. For example, we learn that Bullock is emotionally withdrawn largely because she can’t move past the death of her 4-year-old daughter in a random, freak mishap — a character trait that assumes increasing significance as the story roars on.
Alfonso Cuaron reportedly offered the part of Stone to about a dozen other big-name actresses, all of whom said no — and all of whom will regret it, for despite Clooney’s presence, this is really Bullock’s show, and she doesn’t waste the opportunity.
Her Oscar for “The Blind Side” notwithstanding, the talented Bullock has spent much of her career in lightweight, throwaway fare, so it’s exhilarating to see her dig into this role and dish out a performance for the ages.
But the icing on this tasty cake is the message woven into the mayhem, one that is no less powerful for its simplicity:
It’s a paean to persevering in the face of seemingly intractable adversity, driven home in the final moments in a wordless, emotionally wrenching visual metaphor for the idea that when life smacks you down, you have to get up, keep swinging and go on.
With plenty of surprises tucked into its meaty emotional layers, “Gravity” proves to be a moving, mesmerizing, near-mystical masterwork.
Rated PG-13 for intense action, language, disturbing images. Got a rant or rave about the movies? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.