A life adrift in sorrow.
A terrifying accident in space.
A risk-taking director, a crack special effects team and an Oscar-winning actress.
All these elements come brilliantly together on screen for a harmonic convergence in "Gravity."
Featuring only Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and outfitted with an astonishing array of live action, computer effects and CGI, the stunning film easily ranks as one of 2013's best. Even those with an aversion to sci-fi will get sucked into the existential pulse-pounder.
The 3-D space odyssey chronicles a devastating mishap in space and the valiant efforts of two astronauts -- she a serious medical engineer on her first mission, he a joking veteran ready to retire -- as they do everything in their limited powers to stay alive. That pretty much sums up the plot -- a satellite goes ka-boom in space, the fallout debris nails a shuttle, and two survivors get tethered together while oxygen dwindles and the possibility of latching onto a lifeline grows as likely as catching a falling star.
The scenario, while certainly gripping, doesn't exactly shout out something inspired or bold. We've seen many characters get stuck in space before. Nor does the setup seem substantial enough to be stretched out for 90-plus minutes.
Wrong on both counts.
In the inventive hands of director Alfonso Cuarón -- who shares cowriting duties with his son Jonás -- the dog-eared lost-in-space premise takes one giant leap for filmmaking. Cuarón isn't interested in cranking out yet another digital-effects extravaganza that mostly just engages the senses. Anyone who's seen his films -- "Y Tu Mamá También," "Children of Men," and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" -- realizes the man entertains and makes us ponder the big picture.
He is in top form here, astonishing us by conveying how frightening, isolating and altogether incredible life in zero gravity would be.
But while you can easily enjoy "Gravity" just for its stunning visuals, you will be even more impressed if you dig deeper into its metaphysical, metaphorical narrative. Stirring scenes of artistic daring and depth -- Bullock curling up in a near embryonic ball, a tear floating in the weightless air, for example -- don't slide off. They stay with you long after you've left the theater.
Cuarón isn't the only one responsible for pulling this off. The cinematography, production design, sound and special-effects crews deserve high praise, as does the two-person cast. As Dr. Ryan Stone, Bullock surpasses her flashier Oscar-winning performance in "The Blind Side." In "Gravity," she -- with the guidance of a taut script -- reveals insights into what it must be like to wander around in a zero-gravity existence.
Bullock and Clooney, also an Oscar winner, make easygoing on-screen partners. While his role is smaller and not much of a stretch for the charmer, he's absolutely perfect for it.
Like its casting, nearly everything about "Gravity" feels right, from its appropriate but compact running time to its satisfying conclusion. That it explores weighty, earthbound themes -- grief, rebirth and renewal -- while giving us a spectacular thriller, makes it all that more meaningful and powerful.
Maybe in the end, what "Gravity" is telling us is that there's another final frontier we ought to be exploring -- our own souls.
Rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes