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"Gravity," starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as the sole survivors of a devastating accident in space, is winning rave reviews and Oscars buzz as Hollywood's annual awards season gets into gear.
While the film's premise may seem unpromising, some critics have evoked Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in writing about the movie, released in the United States this week.
The film by Oscar-nominated Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, which achieves the unlikely goal of using a space disaster movie to evoke themes of loss and love, has a stellar 97 percent rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator website.
"Alfonso Cuaron's white-knuckle space odyssey restores a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the big screen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide," wrote industry journal Variety.
The visually stunning movie, shot in eye-popping 3D, is "thrilling, and as close to feeling like you're in space as most of us will ever be," added the Hollywood Reporter.
The story is simple: veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is making his last space flight trying out a new jet-pack space suit which lets him zip around in space, while Ryan Stone (Bullock) is on her first trip into orbit.
They are the sole survivors of a spectacular accident involving satellite debris colliding with their spacecraft, leaving them adrift in the void.
But the technical challenges of making the movie were enormous. They involved a combination of computer generated imagery (CGI) and unorthodox training by Bullock and Clooney to learn to move as if in zero gravity.
"That was the biggest challenge, from early on. Even before getting into the technical solutions, when we were considering the choreography, our brain thinks from the standpoint of gravity, of horizon and weight.
"It was a whole learning curve because it’s completely counter-intuitive .. The problem is that animators learn how to draw based upon horizon and weight," Cuaron told reporters at a Beverly Hills press conference.
One solution was what they called a "light box," a hollow cube with interior walls fitted with thousands of tiny LED lights. This allowed Cuaron to move the universe around the actors, giving the impression that the actors are moving through space.
Another was a 12-wire rig which, with the help of expert puppeteers, enabled the filmmakers to "float" Bullock in certain scenes, while in others the actors were secured into rigs that could rotate or tilt them at different angles.
"It’s just the oddest thing to reprogram your reactions," said 49-year-old Bullock, who won a best actress Oscar for 2009's "The Blind Side."
"To make that second nature just took training, and then weeks of repetition .. And then, you had to separate that from your head and connect to the emotion, and tell the emotional story," she added.
That emotional story is handled with a delicate balance which manages to avoid undue saccharine. Cuaron says the film can be seen "as just a big metaphor.
"This is a film about a woman. Forget about space. It’s a film about a woman that is drifting into the void," said the filmmaker.
"It’s about a woman who is a victim of her own inertia and who lives in her own bottle, and she confronts all of this adversity that brings her further and further away from human connection, and far away from a sense of life and living."
And without giving away any plot details, Bullock and Clooney -- who share a spectacular 17-minute uninterrupted opening shot, drawing comparisons to the fluid camera work of German great Max Ophuels -- do not end up together.
But the finale is, nonetheless, nerve-jinglingly cathartic.
"All in all, it would be impossible to overestimate the difficulty of what Cuaron and his top-of-the-line crew have pulled off," wrote Variety's film critic, Justin Chang.
"Somewhere, one imagines, the spirits of Stanley Kubrick and Max Ophuels are looking down in admiration," he added.