Alfonso Cuarón establishes the high-water mark for 3-D movies


Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Opens Oct. 4

The hype is mostly justified. Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity may not have any profound statements to make about the human will to survive, and its character development may be distractingly sentimental, but as a cinematic experience, it's hard to beat. In fact, it may be the most thrilling, transporting, and unbearably stressful 90 minutes in the theater you have ever experienced.

In its stunning opening 15-minute shot, we're introduced to astronauts Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), floating 600,000 feet above the Earth as they repair the Hubble Telescope. Retirement-bound veteran shuttle pilot Kowalsky regales his colleagues with tales of past exploits while scooting around on his jetpack, playing country-western tunes. Stone serves as Kowalsky's complement, the nervous rookie overseeing the telescope's data upgrade. Clumsy in her unwieldy spacesuit and struggling to hold down her last meal, she tries to tune out his incessant banter and focus on the task at hand-no easy job given the breathtaking spacescape before her.

It's a light-hearted, joyously banal sequence that establishes the workaday rapport that exists between the crew. For us, on Earth, it's a rare and spectacularly mesmerizing glimpse into the world of orbital travel. For the astronauts, it's another day at the office.

That breezy, placid mood is suddenly shattered when mission control reports the detonation of a Russian satellite half a world away. Debris, traveling at thousands of miles per hour, bears down on Hubble. From this moment on, Gravity becomes an extravagantly conceived and brutally intense disaster movie where the audience is immersed in the lyrical magnificence and dizzying terror of outer space.

The film's chain reactions of destruction and zero-gravity catastrophe are as stunning to watch as they are harrowing to experience. Cuarón (who directed the not-so-distant-future-set Children of Men as well as Y Tu Mamá También) luxuriates in virtuoso long takes that capture the infinite loneliness of the void and the low-oxygen, claustrophobic helplessness of watching as shrapnel-like pieces of machinery fly toward Bullock's face. This is what 3-D was made for, and Cuarón establishes its high-water mark. Gravity's optical wonderland not only sends objects off the screen and within our reach but heightens the physical distances that lay between astronaut and salvation, increasing both the stakes and our heart rates. It also allows Cuarón to indulge in moments of three-dimensional poetry, as when Bullock's tears gently float away from the screen. These moments are far more effective than his labored visual metaphors of rebirth.

Bullock is front-and-center for most of the movie, and she delivers the emotional and physical goods as a woman with nothing to live for who is nonetheless fighting to survive. Saddled with a maudlin dead-child backstory, she sells the script's hokier moments in an impressively restrained performance. It's made all the more impressive when you consider that Gravity's essentially a one-woman show played against an empty green-screen.

Clooney's calmly sarcastic and self-deprecating commander, on the other hand, plays directly into the actor's laid-back charms: He's amusing and reassuring in equal doses-exactly the guy you want yapping in your ear piece as you float helplessly through space.

This is lean, mean plotting at its best, a ruthless exercise in "the good news is, the bad news is. . . " storytelling. Streamlined and taut, Cuarón (who penned the script with his son Jonás) expertly doles out brief moments of calm before the next unpredictable calamity strikes.

Steven Price's bass-heavy score is the perfect match for this, pairing action with thrumming rhythms. Gravity's sound design is as revelatory as its visuals, magnifying Bullock's desperate and terror-filled gasps for air, then taking us into the dreaded silence of sound-deadening space.

As an instance of populist filmmaking, Gravity is as good as it gets: jaw-clenchingly intense and gloriously immersive. But as an instance of art, the conventionality of its spiritual aspirations denies it true classic status (Life of Pi had similar shortcomings). Nevertheless, this writer defies anyone to deny the impact of its weightless action sequences or the visceral profundity of its earthbound final moments. Cuarón demonstrates that cellphone screens and tricked-out home theaters are no match for his big-screen artistry.

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