‘Gravity’: Suspense in space sends you into orbit

At first glance, the title “Gravity” sounds like a useful, if generic, handle for a suspense movie about astronauts who become stranded in orbit when disaster strikes.

If you see this movie — and you should see this astonishing movie — you’ll understand that “gravity” suggests an idea that goes beyond the subject of space travel.

The film begins during a routine spacewalk, as we meet a veteran astronaut, Matt (George Clooney), and a medical expert, Ryan (Sandra Bullock).

She’s on her first mission, a newbie who needs his wisecracking reassurance.

This dreamy opening (you might want to sit in the back rows if you’re prone to motion sickness) is invaded by news of dangerously fast-moving debris in orbit, and the film kicks into an eye-filling suspense picture for the remainder of its incredibly tense running time.

It’s a survival story, like many set at sea or in the desert. The difference is there’s no solid ground, or even a horizon: just the stars hanging in space and the Earth — in oddly close proximity — below.

We can’t even rely on the camera to orient us in this directionless world, because the idea of up and down is irrelevant. So we float, weightless, around characters who grow increasingly desperate.

“Gravity” is the first film for director Alfonso Cuaron since 2006’s “Children of Men,” and it is a technical tour de force.

It deserves to be applauded for its intricate, digitally manufactured look, and for Emmanuel Lubezki’s photography (some shots appear to go on, unbroken, for more than 10 minutes, as though our vision had become untethered in orbit, too).

I saw the film in 3D, but even in 2D the movie shows us things that have not been seen by many human eyes. The view is enthralling well before the survival story kicks in.

The film also offers a look into one character’s grief, an idea that might be simplistic if we watched movies for their single-sentence themes — but we don’t. Cuaron embeds this theme within his flabbergasting adventure story, and the blackness of space stands in hauntingly as a metaphor for one person’s depression.

Bullock and Clooney perform the way movie stars are supposed to: They draw you into a fascinating situation and bring enough of their personalities to enliven it. Encased much of the time in spacesuits and helmets, they are part of the film’s amazing design, a world that could not exist without the wizardry of digital effects.

The technology shouldn’t obscure the fact that Cuaron has a way of seeing, which he wants us to share. That’s what movies should do: make us view the world anew. In this case, the same goes for the off-world.

“Gravity” (four stars)

Astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney find themselves lost in space, as director Alfonso Cuaron creates an amazing digital canvas for an incredibly suspenseful situation. More than just astonishing technology, the film truly makes us see in a new way.

Rated: PG-13 for language.

Showing: Alderwood Mall, Cinebarre, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Marysville, Stanwood, Meridian, Sundance, Thornton Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall, Oak Harbor.

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