Gravity
Four Stars
Directed by Alfonso Cuarón
Starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Rated PG-13

The great Roger Ebert was fond of referring to "bruised forearm movies," which he defined as "the kind of movie where your date is always grabbing your forearm in a viselike grip, as unbearable excitement unfolds on the screen."

Alfonso Cuarón is no stranger to the bruised forearm art, having directed the thrilling "Children of Men" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," among others.

But he outdoes himself with his new 3-D effort "Gravity." Here is a movie that is everything a movie should be: relentlessly suspenseful and packed with cutting-edge effects but wholly character-driven, with emotional gravity underpinning the pyrotechnics. Your forearm won't just bruise; it'll be full-on black-and-blue.

The movie is centered on the ultimate nightmare, as first-time astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) finds herself stranded in outer space alongside veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). There are shades of the legendary "2001: A Space Odyssey," not to mention "Cast Away," in the story that follows. The stakes could not be higher; every second is filled with life-or-death tension. But the less said about the details, the better.

The film needs to be seen on the biggest possible screen with the best possible sound. It requires the large screen size because of the extraordinary, painterly outer space compositions -- characters float amid a sea of blackness as the rising sun illuminates the big blue planet below, and space stations loom as specks of manmade matter against the vastness of the stars.

The epic soundscape deserves the best possible treatment as well. Fully utilizing a surround sound environment, the movie offers a sensory immersion. It's the eerie contrast between the overwhelming quiet of space and the buzz of helmet communications, the pounding and crashing of unexpected collisions and explosions meted out against the hymnals, ethereal chords and techno beats of Steven Price's score.

Bullock enhances her character's ordeal with a deeply-felt sense of melancholy born out of a personal trauma. Stone is steadfast in the face of impending death; Bullock gets the survivalist focus down easily. The trickier work is done between the lines, with the suggestion that her character might just be OK if she never returns to earth. It's haunting, sad and the best work of the actress' career.

The characters drive the action scripted by Cuarón and his son Jonas. Every move they make is consistent with the people we've come to understand. The film is as much about what it means to be alive, to experience all of life's burdens and beauties, as it is the story of two people trying to stay alive.

The cumulative effect is a completely gripping cinematic experience, one of those exceedingly rare movies that has been crafted with such consummate skill that it feels like we're there with the astronauts, fighting to survive across an interstellar sea.

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Updated 6 minutes ago What to expect at RNC tonight . . . Alleged DWI driver in court . . . Explaining Nassau transgender athlete ban . . . New animals at game farm

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