To listen to some overzealous scribes tell it, writer-director Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is so much the instant masterpiece that it almost makes Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey look as accomplished as Plan 9 from Outer Space by comparison. Well, no.

To be frank, it's not even Cuaron's best picture, not with Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men on his resume. Yet what it lacks in sociopolitical heft and laser-point characterizations it makes up for in sheer visual spectacle, with a side plate of spiritual musing to allow it to emerge as more than just an industrial light and magic show. It's an absorbing movie that definitely needs to be seen - and definitely needs to be seen in IMAX 3-D (for once, the extra expense is worth it). After that initial viewing - particularly when it's viewed on a flat screen TV down the road - it's anybody's guess how it will hold up.

For now, Cuaron places us in outer space in a manner designed to take breaths away. Working with director of photography Emmanuel Lubezski and a crack FX team to create a you-are-there environment, he puts us in the company of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), two members of the Explorer space shuttle crew. Kowalski is a wisecracking veteran astronaut, so comfortable with his job that he can perform it while regaling the folks at Mission Control with tales of his past exploits on Earth (Mardi Gras, to be specific).

Stone, on the other hand, is a rookie rocketeer, all frayed nerves and bouts of self-doubt on her first voyage into space. Their patch-up mission is going as planned until the debris from a destroyed Russian satellite heads their way, crippling the space shuttle and killing everyone except Kowalski and Stone.

(Trust me, this is not a spoiler: These poor souls are deemed expendable even more quickly than those unfortunate "redshirts" who accompanied Kirk and McCoy down to a planet's surface and were always eliminated well before the commercial break.)

Stone is understandably a panicky mess as she's free-floating through space with her suit's oxygen supply running perilously low; that leaves it to Kowalski to not only offer her the necessary support but also devise a plan that will allow them to safely return to Earth. That's a tall order, given the nonfunctional status of the Explorer and the fact that the neighboring space station is just a small dot on the horizon, almost certainly too far to be reached when Stone's diminished air supply and Kowalski's diminished fuel supply are taken into account. Houston, we have a problem indeed.

Like Roger Deakins and Michael Ballhaus, Lubezski is a brilliant cinematographer who should have won an Oscar years ago (past credits include Sleepy Hollow, Children of Men and The Tree of Life). I suspect he might finally cop one for this film, which registers as such an extraordinary technical feat that college film courses of the future might place it in regular rotation as required viewing. There's one shot that's certain to become a classic on its own: An image of a fetal-positioned Stone, it's the most significant when it comes to providing the film with a connection to 2001 and its iconic Star Child. Indeed, all of the visuals are so staggering, so awe-inspiring, that they bring up thoughts of the existence of God (or not; take your pick), the mysteries of the universe and the fatal beauty of everything that surrounds us without any need for accompanying text.

But we do get that text, in the form of a past tragedy that haunts Stone and informs her every move. On paper, I could take or leave this narrative thread, but Bullock's excellent performance - the best of her career - makes me glad it's there, as she navigates the attendant emotions beautifully.

Although the role is hardly a stretch, Clooney is fine as the smooth operator who's quick on his feet (even in weightless space) and even quicker in his head, and it's a nice touch to have Ed Harris provide the voice from Mission Control (Harris, of course, performed similar MC duty as the man who brought Tom Hanks and company home in Apollo 13 and even donned the astronaut suit himself in The Right Stuff).

While the sparse screenplay co-written by Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron will strike some as suitably thrifty and others as appallingly threadbare, there's no denying it sports a few moldy conventions. Did Clooney's Kowalski really have to be an astronaut who's on his last assignment before he's set to retire? Does one poignant sequence have to so completely ape one from Brian De Palma's painful Mission to Mars?

And, most crucially, did the Cuarons really have to include a gotcha moment in their film? There's a late sequence that's so thuddingly obvious and stupid, it either should have been excised or presented in a different manner. As it stands, it will provide a brief moment of joy for the slow thinkers in the audience while inducing groans from almost everyone else. (I certainly won't reveal it, but it produces the same sort of "oh, come on" reaction as those stories where it turns out everything was just a dream.)

I'm anxious to catch Gravity three more times - once more in IMAX 3-D, of course, but also theatrically in 2-D and then again on Blu-ray. One of the measures of a great movie is that it retains its appeal no matter what the viewing conditions; that's why Star Wars and Jaws continue to be endlessly discussed after three-and-a-half decades and why Avatar, the top-grossing movie of all time, has largely been ignored after a mere four years. (That's also why I was instantly able to fall in love with the psychedelic Yellow Submarine in my youth, even though my first two viewings of it were on crummy black-and-white TV sets.)

Stripped of its bells and whistles, will Gravity stand the test of time? It's impossible to predict, but never mind: The present is our primary concern, and this eye-popper of a movie demands to be viewed in the spectacular now.



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