Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men,” “Y Tu Mamá También”)
Written by: Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) and Jonás Cuarón (“Year of the Nail”)

As the first 17 minutes of director Alfonso Cuarón’s technical marvel “Gravity” unfold in one real-time, unbroken camera shot, the sheer majesty of something the world had come to see as workmanlike and routine—the Space Shuttle program and its seemingly ho-hum tasks of repairing satellites and conducting research—snaps into relief. The Space Race of the ’60s may have been where all the hot bigger-than-life shots and heroes were minted, but the situational reality of all astronauts eventually winds up the same: simultaneously dwarfed by both the planet they escaped from as well as the impossibly cold, infinite blackness of outer space.

Stark and beautiful, “Gravity” opens with novice astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) performing repairs on the Hubble Telescope while seasoned mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zooms around the shuttle using an experimental jetpack. Technical chatter and cornball stories traded with Mission Control in Houston (voiced by Ed Harris, in a giant “Apollo 13” wink to the audience) soon give way to controlled panic: a Russian missile test has obliterated a satellite, turning it into a lethal cloud of debris headed straight for the shuttle. Stone, Kowalski, and the rest of the unseen crew must begin re-entry procedures immediately to avoid utter devastation.

That threadbare plot and rather basic, uninspired dialogue (from a script by the director and his son, Jonás) ultimately cement “Gravity” as a near-miss masterpiece. But that shouldn’t be a deterrent, as “Gravity” is a breathtaking film. When experienced in 3D—a recommendation that I never, ever make—and on the biggest screen available, the visuals in “Gravity” become nearly hypnotic. Scientifically accurate or not, Cuarón doesn’t pull any punches with the physics, sending Bullock’s emotionally-broken Stone and the camera tumbling endlessly through the nothingness or amid the remains of a decimated space station. Tech nerds may quibble with the aforementioned physics and whether or not Newton’s Third Law of Motion (the one about equal and opposite reactions) is always being accurately portrayed, or the notion that all space stations are but a short jaunt through space from one another—not to mention in the same geosynchronous orbit. Likely one day Cuarón will deliver a perfect film. Until then, though, we have to settle for a really great one in “Gravity.”

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