Local review: ‘Gravity’ well done on many levels

Space can be a terrifying place even without alien invaders and Sith lords, as director Alfonso Cuaron brilliantly demonstrates in “Gravity.”

Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission in space, alongside veteran shuttle commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). When the explosion of a satellite triggers a chain reaction that critically damages their ship, the two astronauts are left adrift nearly 400 miles above the Earth’s surface.

It’s a straightforward setup to a powerful and richly suspenseful film in which amazing cinematography and special effects create a seamless zero-gravity environment where serenity and chaos are rendered in equally breathtaking fashion. But the technical wizardry is only part of the equation that makes “Gravity” so exceptional.

Bullock and Clooney make up the entire on-screen cast (though you can hear Ed Harris’ voice from Houston back on Earth), and they are perfectly suited to their roles. Clooney’s familiar calm, cool-guy demeanor provides a steadying center not only for Stone but also for the audience amid the intermittent bedlam and foreboding quiet.

Bullock is vulnerable but gutsy and relatably (if you’ll forgive the expression) down to Earth. This is no space cowgirl, effortlessly overcoming unbelievable obstacles with action hero ease. She seems completely out of her depth, a quality that lends the film more realism than even the most expertly constructed effects and research. I have no idea how the details measure up to the facts, but I never questioned a thing, in large part because I was so invested in the character involved.

At the same time she’s facing almost certain death in space, Stone grapples with the lingering anguish following the death of her young daughter. It’s hard to think of any actress who could weave the sadness and steel together as well as Bullock does.

And the visuals live up to the powerhouse acting. I’d seen his work before, but I really came to appreciate his exceptional talent with 2006’s “Children of Men.” One of the most memorable moments in that film is a single take in which two characters make their way through a war zone. “Gravity” utilizes even longer takes, or at least it seems that way. I’m sure effects were used to link some of them so smoothly together, but the seemingly uncut sequences add another dimension of realism.

And speaking of dimensions, this is the first movie I can recall since the recent 3D tidal wave where the technique actually had an impact on the film. I don’t doubt it would be an excellent movie in a standard format, but the 3D method is used to its fullest extent in creating an immersive experience. I actually ducked at one point as shrapnel careened “off” the screen.

“Gravity” is an intense experience that combines two things often thought of as mutually exclusive – eye-popping effects and rich acting. All the hype you’ve heard about it is well-deserved.