THERE’S a scene that comes early in “Gravity,” Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning tale of survival, that will absolutely take your breath away.
Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a nervous medical engineer making her first space shuttle flight, and her far more experienced co-pilot Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are assaulted by a storm of space debris, the detritus of a destroyed Russian satellite, that leaves them marooned and facing their own mortality. It’s an amazing sequence that not only shows a cunning use of technology but makes the case that “Gravity” is one of the few films that demands to be seen in 3-D IMAX.
Yet “Gravity ”also has an emotional and spiritual depth that, like “127 Hours,” another movie about man vs. isolation, transcends what might at first seem a gimmicky plot device.
The film evokes the grandeur of the cosmos from the opening shots of Stone and Kowalski outside their craft, set against the vast backdrop of the universe and a beautiful blue Earth. She’s making repairs while he (and a third astronaut that we only see from a distance) is bouncing around like a first-grader at recess.
But things turn serious when the debris field slams into them, ultimately leaving Stone alone to perhaps drift to her demise. That’s when “Gravity” becomes tense and suspenseful.
While Bullock became a household name by starring in more lightweight material, she holds her own here as someone coming to grips with her fate. Simultaneously, she’s extremely relatable; it’s very easy to identify with her as the newcomer who suddenly finds herself in way over her head.
Of course, “Gravity” isn’t the first movie to plumb the horror of dying slowly alone. The likes of “Open Water,” “Frozen” and “Buried” have toyed with the idea of characters having only panic and prayers for company to varying effect, but few pack the punch that this one does.
Directed by Mexican director Cuaron (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” “Children of Men”) and co-written with his son, Jonas, “Gravity” evokes a sense of spirituality without being too heavy-handed or obvious.
With help from cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (“The Tree of Life”), it’s also a technical marvel, using $80 million worth of the latest cinematic technologies to propel the story, not merely to dazzle and distract. That they do it within the confines of a concise, tightly written 90-minute story arc makes it all the more remarkable.
Like last year’s “Life of Pi,” another beautifully rendered tale about facing the elements alone, no doubt there will be debates as the credits roll about how the Cuarons resolve their story. Some will be dissatisfied; others will think it’s pitch-perfect and of a piece with everything that’s come before.
But there should be no argument about the achievement that the Cuarons — and Bullock — have created.