Movies frequently engage us on an emotional level, prompting us to empathize with the characters onscreen. Less often, but still common, a film can trigger a physical response -- like making us flinch during a horror flick or experience a quick burst of adrenaline during a tense chase. Alfonso Cuaron’s <I>Gravity</I> is that rarest of all beasts, an enthralling work of popular art so overwhelmingly visceral that you might need a few minutes after leaving the theater -- and <I>Gravity</I> <I>should</I> be seen in a theater -- to readjust to everyday life.<P><P> The setup couldn’t be simpler. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on a space-shuttle mission headed by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a talkative, charismatic leader full of colorful stories that he shares with his crewmates and mission control. Debris hits the area where they are working during a space walk, and soon the pair find themselves detached from their ship and stranded among the stars. While figuring out what steps they can take to save themselves, Stone grapples with a painful past that makes her consider giving up altogether.<P><P> Cuaron grabs us from the opening shot with the majesty and physical reality of a space walk. His control and mastery are certainly showy -- you might very well think to yourself, “I didn’t know a filmmaker could do that” -- but they’re also designed to put viewers on edge. Almost instantly, you feel like you’re sharing Stone and Kowalsky’s surroundings, and it quickly turns into a previously unimagined nightmare -- the kind of stress dream in which forces are threatening you and there’s little you can do but hang on for dear life.<P><P> The movie is a thrill ride, sure, but first and foremost it’s a fight for survival, and that fight transpires in both a physical and an emotional realm. Cuaron wears us out in the film’s first act so that when it comes time to focus on the characters’ -- especially Stone’s -- struggle to decide if life is worth fighting for, the emotions hit us hard. Cuaron upsets us physically so that we’re less resistant to contemplating the same painful psychological territory as his characters.<P><P> This is far from the first time that Cuaron has shown an uncanny talent for blending state-of-the-art effects with a strong emotional story. He directed <I>Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban</I>, which was arguably the most respected entry in that franchise because it made Hogwarts feel like a real place with lots of outdoor areas to explore, rather than just a movie set full of shifting walls and ghosts. His last film before <I>Gravity</I> was <I>Children of Men</I>, as disturbing and affecting a portrait of a future dystopia as anyone has produced since <I>Blade Runner</I>.<P><P> While <I>Gravity</I> shares with those pictures the ability to make an unfamiliar environment seem real, it’s a different experience because it cuts so close to the bone. There’s something elemental Cuaron is getting at -- he’s showing us how close people can come to deciding that leaving this Earth might be what they really want. It’s a formidable achievement to combine such a profound examination of suicidal thought with such stunningly realized and executed visuals, and it makes <I>Gravity</I> arguably the most ambitious science-fiction film since Kubrick’s <I>2001: A Space Odyssey</I>.<P><P> However, where that picture ended with an image that people still debate 45 years later, Cuaron’s unambiguous final shot drives home the movie’s title, inverts one of the most famous quotes in the history of space travel, and gives us one last thunderously visceral reminder of how thoroughly this world-class filmmaker has had us in the palm of his hand for the previous 90 minutes. It’s the perfect ending to an unforgettable experience.
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