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By Don Gibble  October 11, 2013 12:00 am

At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, “Gravity” is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise. Not at all a science fiction film in the conventional sense, Alfonso Cuaron’s first feature in seven years has no aliens or space ship battles, just the intimate spectacle of a man and a woman trying to cope in the most hostile possible environment across a very tight 90 minutes.

 “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” George Clooney’s veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky half-jokes at the outset from his perch in orbit around Earth, which looms massively beneath. It’s a sentiment few viewers will agree with once their jaws begin dropping at Cuaron’s astonishing 13 minute opening shot, which gyrates and swoops and loops and turns in concert with the movements of the space shuttle and those of Matt, who jets around untethered while mission scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to fix a technical problem outside the ship. 

The story, written by Cuaron and his son James, is very simple and straightforward: How will the two surviving team members of a crippled American space shuttle contrive to get back to Earth before their oxygen runs out? Before Cuaron even resorts to his first cut, the peril jacks way up with word of approaching space debris, the result of a chain reaction from the Russians having shot down one of their own satellites. Suddenly and shockingly, the empty space is filled with a metallic torrent from which only dumb luck can save the exposed space travelers. 

Here, as elsewhere in the film, Cuaron coils the tension and visceral impact of key scenes via a startling mix of the objective and subjective, and the extreme contrast between the stillness of empty space and the abrupt arrival of terrible threats. This is achieved by switching from the eerie electronic heaves of Steven Price’s insidiously effective score to total science, from violent physical action to tight shots of Stone’s face, her breath visible on the inside of her mask and her nervous inhaling and exhaling the only sounds to be heard; from the beauty of a green, blue and tan planet on one side and the depths of infinite darkness on the other.

Seeing is what it’s mostly about here, seeing space as if the film was actually shot there. It’s a wonderful cinematic jolt to watch this film for the first time, as it looks as if it had been filmed, as it were, on location. Given the brief running time, it will be tempting for many to return for second and third visits just to take it all in again, to absorb all Cuaron and his team of collaborators have done. Andy Nicholson’s production design is mainly devoted to creating multiple much-lived-in space ships so battered and abused they resemble banged-up old cars, while Tim Webber’s special effects work never has a CGI look.

With all the excitement “Gravity” delivers, at a certain point, around the time of the final long exchange between Kowalsky and Stone, it becomes clear that “Gravity” doesn’t intend to offer more than that; it shies away from proposing anything metaphysical, philosophically suggestive or meaning-laden. The ending is very cool. Clooney is as good as usual and this is by far the best film Bullock has ever been in! 

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