‘Gravity’ works as both thrilling sci-fi spectacle and brilliant high art

On its face, “Gravity” — a 3-D science-fiction action ad­ven­ture about two astronauts at sea in a vast nightscape — sounds like just another disposable popcorn spectacle: an eye-popping, refreshingly escapist palate cleanser before the heavy stuff yet to come on a groaning board of an awards season.

And it is. But when an artist of the caliber of Alfonso Cuarón is at the helm, “Gravity” not only delivers on its promise of a wildly entertaining space ad­ven­ture, but also becomes a groundbreaking addition to a genre already defined for the ages by the likes of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Like Stanley Kubrick before him, Cuarón is a master of the cinematic medium as both pop and high art; there are few filmmakers with his instinctive facility for long, bravura camera movements, breathtaking scope and taut storytelling (despite its ambition and sprawling canvas, this expertly edited film clocks in at a crisp hour and a half). Thanks to Cuarón’s prodigious gifts, “Gravity” succeeds simultaneously as a simple classic shipwreck narrative (albeit at zero-gravity), and as an utterly breathtaking restoration of size and occasion to the movies themselves.

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Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were on the red carpet Wednesday night for the New York premiere of their action-packed 3-D space adventure \

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were on the red carpet Wednesday night for the New York premiere of their action-packed 3-D space adventure "Gravity."

epa04176175 Shane Red Hawk of the Sicangu Lakota band of the Rosebud Sioux (L) and his daughter Tshina Red Hawk (R) wait for tribal leaders with the 'Cowboy and Indian Alliance' to begin a horseback ride in protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline across from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, USA, 22 April 2014. The alliance of farmers, ranchers, and tribes has dubbed their week-long series of protests 'Reject and Protect.' EPA/JIM LO SCALZO

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From its very first shot, “Gravity” pins viewers back in their seats, very rarely letting themselves regain their balance. The film opens on two NASA space travelers, mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), as they work outside their space shuttle, Stone trying to manage motion sickness on her first trip, Kowalski having fun with his nifty new jet pack and clowning around with Houston, hundreds of miles below. (There’s a wonderful old-school 3-D moment when Clooney reaches a giant hand into the audience to grab a stray bolt.)

It’s not too much of a spoiler to relate that, soon enough, the laughing stops — after one of the most terrifying, inspiring and masterfully composed visual sequences to be seen on screen this year. What ensues is one character’s desperate attempt to survive as the oxygen runs out, an anguished scramble through a vast, unforgiving, pristinely silent universe that Cuarón, his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and their effects team capture with precision, elegance and an amazingly expressive sense of existential dread.

Using an ingenious combination of live action, computer-generated imagery, cutting-edge lighting techniques and 3-D, Cuarón puts viewers into the tumbling, floating, frighteningly un-rooted world of “Gravity,” where Bullock and Clooney convincingly move with both balletic grace and puffy, moon-man awkwardness. As he did in the 2006 masterpiece “Children of Men,” Cuarón rigorously obeys the rules of spatial logic, an absolute necessity in a frame where there’s literally no up or down.

With viewers in such assured hands, they can safely immerse themselves in the story, which, as written by Cuarón and his son, Jonás, mimics countless plots that have gone before in which a plucky lone soul defies the odds to live another day (or not). Consonant with that tradition, there are moments of “Gravity” that could be unforgivably hokey, were it not for the utter persuasiveness with which the filmmakers and actors deliver them. Bullock does a particularly impressive job of marshaling what’s become her hallmark combination of grit, warmth and humor to invest a sense of gratifying ordinariness to a woman forced into extraordinary circumstances. Just when viewers think Stone’s plight couldn’t be more cosmically overwhelming, Bullock delivers the film’s best line — “I hate space” — with everyday whiny annoyance.

One could debate whether “Gravity” really needed a sentimental back story to make its protagonist relatable, but even that nod to Hollywood-101 storytelling and clichéd “hell of a ride” one-liners can’t detract from the sensory amazement and sheer grandeur of what Cuarón has accomplished. With sound, image and perhaps most chillingly, silence, he leads the audience wherever he wants us to go — snaking through a blown-out space station, encased within the womb of an abandoned Russian capsule, untethered and at large in a frigid, indifferent starfield — with complete authority, astonishing verisimilitude and unsettling emotional depth.

It goes without saying that “Gravity” must be seen in theaters to be appreciated; the prospect of watching this movie on anything less than a 40-foot screen is tantamount to listening to Beethoven through a tin can and a string. And this is that rare case when 3-D is essential. But in creating such a technical and artistic tour de force, Cuarón has not only brought back a sense of special-ness to the cinema, but also restored monumentality to its stars, making it a point to film Clooney and Bullock so that they loom as imposingly as the planets along with which they’re helplessly spinning.

Those larger-than-life proportions are never more pronounced than in the film’s final scene of almost primal rebirth. “Gravity” evokes “ahs,” “aws” and, finally, simple awe. At the risk of sounding unforgivably hokey, it’s one hell of a ride.

★★★★

PG-13. At area theaters. Contains intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief, strong profanity. 91 minutes.

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