‘Gravity’ film tackles weighty issues of life and death

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Alfonso Cuaron has an unmatched ability to transport audiences out of the cinema and to uncharted lands of make-believe. In 1995, he made the world of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s turn-of-the-century children’s story “A Little Princess” come alive in film. In 2004, he darkened the halls of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry with the lowest grossing but most critically acclaimed installment of the Harry Potter series, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.” In his latest triumph, “Gravity,” Cuaron leaves behind Earth to explore the final frontier of cinematic escapism — outer space.

The film opens with a sweeping 13-minute shot. The camera catches, on one side, the gentle curve of the Earth from miles outside its atmosphere and, on the other side, the magnificent abyss of outer space. All is silent until the fuzzy crinkling of mission control communications (voiced by Ed Harris) pulls the focus toward the Hubble Space Telescope, where Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is diligently working to install a piece of equipment. Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) flies around with his jetpack, recounting old stories to Houston and enjoying his last mission before retirement.

It’s a quotidian scene for the astronauts until word comes from Mission Control that debris from a demolished Russian satellite is traveling toward them faster than a bullet. The shrapnel hits, destroying their return shuttle and leaving them stranded in space.

With their oxygen supplies low, Stone and Kowalski race against time to reach a shuttle that will take them back to Earth. Beyond this point, the plot matters little. Bullock’s character grapples with the meaning of her past and, in a somewhat corny way, discovers the force that will bring her back home (hence the title). The film’s religious undertones, with Clooney playing an allegorical Christ figure, drive character development while drawing a compelling parallel between the physical and metaphysical realms of the outer-world as understood through Stone while she undergoes a spiritual rebirth.

Bullock stuns in her role as Stone. Although the part was originally offered to Angelina Jolie (and then about half of Hollywood), it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Bullock leading this film. She exudes earnestness and control while conquering the challenges of her imaginary environment. In one scene, she performs a type of zero-gravity ballet that adds a human beauty to the already visually stunning spectacle that is “Gravity.” It’s too soon to start making Oscar predictions, but so far, Bullock is the one to beat.

While the performances in the film are top-notch, the real centerpiece of “Gravity” is the visual effects. Nothing inspires more fear, more awe or more profound appreciation than Cuaron’s arrestingly beautiful galactic scenery. The experience of watching this movie, especially in 3D, is so immersive that it only occurs as an afterthought that it is all computer-generated. The set design reflects the reality of modern-day technologies, which lends the film a degree of authenticity and also distances it from more fantastical space films like those in the “Star Trek” series. Cuaron has created fantasy-free science fiction, and he’s done it unbelievably well.

That’s not to say, however, that this film will get anyone excited about becoming an astronaut.  “Gravity” is unexpectedly terrifying. Whether it’s the thought of running out of oxygen while dodging shrapnel, the oppressive silence of space or being lost without any hope of rescue in an unforgiving void, viewers have their pick of chilling scenarios to squirm over. Tight shots from the inside of Stone’s helmet create a sense of claustrophobia despite the expansiveness of space. The film is, above all, a tale of survival — a lost-at-sea type of story with enough twists and setbacks to keep viewers holding their breath and gripping their seats until the very end.