As we are told in Gravity’s prologue, life in space is impossible. A relatively simple concept to grasp, given the conditions of the icy vacuum that is the final frontier. Director Alfonso Cuarón explores this notion to produce one of the most gripping films of the year. It is a familiar story; a tragic accident leads to a tense race-against-time journey to get home. The narrative is well-known. Almost everything else in Gravity is extraordinary.

A routine spacewalk turns deadly with the help of some errant cosmic debris, leaving George Clooney’s astronaut stranded and casting Sandra Bullock’s medical engineer adrift from her shuttle. The image of a lone figure sent spinning and spiraling into the abyss as Earth becomes a distant dot, is as awe-inspiring as it is terrifying. The cold isolation of space is established early on and with it a feeling of hopelessness and despair.

But this is not just a woman’s attempt to return to her home planet, but to reconnect with the human race. As Bullock’s space odyssey continues it becomes clear why she shunned life on terra firma and chose to work amongst the stars. Imagery of her rebirth is perhaps somewhat on the nose but it does serve its purpose. In order to return to her old life she must let go of her past, while, in a more literal sense, holding on for dear life.

Cuarón deserves a great deal of credit for his pacing. Not a moment is wasted. With every passing second oxygen levels are dropping, jet-pack fuel is waning, chances of getting home are becoming slimmer and slimmer. Solving one problem usually creates another, a domino effect that ratchets up the tension. There are few films that create such levels of consistent tension while looking so good. It is a film of immense beauty. The sunrises over planet Earth and space shuttle explosions give the film a sense of grandeur, but equally impressive are the smaller details; the feeling of weightlessness is perfectly captured. In every sense it is a triumph of visual effects.

That is not to say that Gravity does not take liberties with science in order to enhance the plot (Bullock’s jet propelled fire extinguisher is lifted straight from Pixar’s Wall-E), but such is the rapidity and quality of the action set-pieces you are unlikely to notice or care. Less forgivable are Bullock’s monologues which shoot for moving and inspirational, but land somewhere around the tedious and nauseating. But this is a minor flaw in an otherwise masterful film that breathes new life into the space adventure genre.

Michael Clancy