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Movie theaters will talk themselves blue these days trying to convince people to still bother to come out and see films in dark theaters with other people. But all they really need is Gravity, one of the most captivating and essential big-screen experiences in recent years, and maybe ever. The gripping thriller about two astronauts lost in space could work on a small screen in theory, sure. But in a dark theater, with expert sound effects and the stunning visuals surrounding you, Gravity is like being launched into orbit yourself; it's transporting and terrifying and, eventually, transcendent.
With its mind-boggling visuals and commitment to the authentic experience of outer space (no sound, no gravity, no oxygen), Gravity is genuinely unlike any film you've ever seen before. But its story, from a script written by director Alfonso Cuaron with his son Jonas, is deliberately, sometimes clangingly familiar. You've got one astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a wisecracking veteran on his final spacewalk. And you've got the rookie Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a brilliant and strong-willed scientist who's understandably nauseous on her first trip into orbit. This odd couple pair has met disaster in countless types of movies for the last century, but this time it happens to be in space, when a Russian satellite is hit by a missile and the debris comes flying at them at thousands of miles an hour. In space, nobody can help you dodge shrapnel.
The lauded 10-minute unbroken shot that opens the film is mesmerizing and thrilling, and leads into the first action sequence, as Stone and Kowalski survive the debris field and manage to regroup themselves while overcoming problems that just don't exist on earth, like the fact that once you start spinning in space, there's no way to stop yourself. As Cuaron's camera slips magically inside Stone's helmet and back out into the distance of space, the visceral experience of the film becomes almost unbearable; the action sequences of Gravity are designed like a thrill ride, wringing maximum physical response from the audience, and it's an insanely well-calibrated ride at that. When Stone and Kowalski finally have a chance to catch their breath, you may only then realize you've been holding yours as well.
When the film takes the time to develop the characters, allowing Stone to talk about her young daughter's death and Kowalski (Clooney essentially just playing himself in a spacesuit) to talk her through the ordeal, the lighter moments tend to work better than the heavier stuff near the end. Sandra Bullock's resolutely physical, ferocious performance often says more concisely everything the script stumbles in saying out loud, and many of the film's best emotional moments-- like her one-sided communication with amateur radio operator back on Earth-- are nearly wordless. The gambit of having the astronauts communicate with "Houston in the blind" allows the characters to narrate essential technical parts of the action, but at several key moments the script doesn't know to step back-- that Bullock's face and grim determination to survive say it all.
With its deliberately archetypal characters and occasionally chewy dialogue Gravity feels like a film James Cameron would be lucky to make--an enormous compliment for this technically brilliant, unerringly entertaining thriller. Your mileage may vary on the film's more spiritual elements, but Gravity will make you believe in the higher power of movies, of the transformation that happens in a dark room with a giant screen and a story set in a place you couldn't possibly imagine. See it in IMAX and in 3D and any other way that allows you to block out the rest of the world. Gravity is movie heaven.