Hold on tight for the ride of your life in "Gravity" (Warner Bros.), a lost-in-space adventure as exhilarating as it is terrifying.
Director Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men"), who co-wrote the screenplay with his son Jonas, serves up a modern-day horror story with top-notch performances and dazzling 3-D cinematography that envelops the audience in the majesty of space.
The film's life-or-death scenario evokes the spirit of the 2011 movie "Apollo 18." But the danger here doesn't come from aliens as it did in that feature. Instead, it results from all-too-human technology gone badly wrong.
Amid the mayhem, "Gravity" has another, deeper story to tell, as the nearness of death provokes reflections on mortality and the afterlife.
The space shuttle is in orbit 370 miles above Earth, and astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are outside it, making repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope. The two crewmates are chalk and cheese: Stone the cool, reserved scientist on her first mission; Kowalski the cocky veteran, a fun-loving space cowboy with the gift of the gab who's savoring his final voyage.
"Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission," Kowalski quips lightheartedly to mission control before breaking into another yarn as his favorite country music plays in the background.
Kowalski's levity is misplaced. When the Russians launch a missile against a spy satellite, it causes a chain reaction in space, raining debris on the astronauts. Within seconds, the shuttle is destroyed, and Kowalski and Stone are the only survivors, cut off from Earth and spiraling into outer space.
What ensues is "E.T." in reverse, as our plucky marooned humans search for a way to go home (where gravity is taken for granted). With Kowalski steering his jet pack and Stone on a tether, they make their way to the nearest oasis, the International Space Station, where more challenges await.
To describe what happens next would be a spoiler. Suffice it to say that, in the deafening silence of space, the duo has plenty of time to meditate as they stare death in the face.
For Stone, this is an epiphany. She laments that she is alone in the world, mourning the loss of her only child in an accident years ago. "Who will pray for my soul?" she asks.
While she admits that she has never prayed herself, she regrets that no one ever taught her how.
Such feelings are hardly surprising when the possibility of death is imminent. But "Gravity" -- which provides a rare combination of enlightenment and excitement -- uses these sentiments as stepping stones toward a resolution that viewers of faith will find both satisfying and refreshingly pro-life.
In view of its underlying significance, and despite the elements listed below, some parents may consider "Gravity" acceptable for mature adolescents.
The film contains scenes of intense peril and horror, brief gore, at least one use of profanity and a few crude expressions. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.