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I’ve finally gotten around to seeing one of the big event movies of 2013, the Alfonso Cuarón-helmed space thriller Gravity. This is the great Mexican director’s first film since 2006’s Children of Men, arguably the finest film he has yet directed, so I was hyped to see what seven years of gruntwork would look like. Predictably, it looks amazing. Not just from a photographic/compositional point of view, but from an SFX point of view. It’s essentially a 21st-century ride film, which is both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness.

Gravity kind of reminded me of Inception, in that they were both massive blockbusters made by directors who have a knack for great blockbuster filmmaking. You could also boil down both movies’ essence to “special effects extravaganza,” and in both cases you’d be mostly right. They more or less dispense with in-depth characterization in favour of focusing on structure, craft, and mind-blowing set pieces. Not everyone thinks that this is a way films should be made, but there is something to be said about putting craft front-and-centre in the context of a tentpole film. Cuarón brings a grace to the proceedings where he could have easily been lumbering or ponderous.

Now, Alfonso Cuarón has never let a massive budget get in the way of compelling characters. But Gravity feels in many ways like a fudged version of Children of Men‘s perfect alchemy of story, characterization, and direction. But what it does lack in the screenplay department it more than makes up in raw, visceral action. Don’t be surprised if you have a clutching feeling in your chest for the whole first act of this film; seeing someone spinning out of control in deep space amid speeding debris will do that. From then on, Gravitybecomes a survival story that’s beautiful in its elegance; stranded astronauts Sandra Bullock and George Clooney have a destination, a time frame, and limited resources. The thrill of the film lies in how they pull it off.

That said, the film rides highest when danger is imminent. When things quiet down, it loses a bit of its stepping, and it’s mostly always due to the dialogue. But when there’s only one person on screen, the film chugs along nicely, bolstered by some next-level space photography. Despite the heavy amount of CGI work on display in Gravity, it never feels distracting or showy. The seams of the digital compositions never show, which allows Cuarón to go wherever he damn well pleases. The camera goes up, down and all around, but it is never disorienting. The points of reference are clearly drawn out. Like I said during the opening, this is a ride film, the path is clearly drawn out. Any time the film feels like it’s going off the rails, there’s still a feeling like you’re being guided along so as to not get fully lost.

Cast-wise, while George Clooney is pretty clearly in default George Clooney mode (the part was apparently offered at one point to Robert Downey, Jr., which makes total sense and wouldn’t have made one lick of difference in the final product), Sandra Bullock gamely shoulders the brunt of the human element. She gives her astronaut/scientist enough of an everywoman quality so as to be believably frazzled but adequately skilled in her situation. All the while, Bullock underplays her character’s adaptability and courage, which comes to the forefront when under fire, which works better in this narrative’s particular context. In All Is Lost, it was a matter of how Robert Redford was going to get out of his series of jams. In Gravity, it’s more of a question of if, since as few resources one has lost in the ocean, it’s a bounty compared to the resources you have while lost in space.

I came to this film already having seen All Is Lost, so I feel like zero-backstory, glean-everything-through-action method used for Robert Redford would have suited Bullock as well. But as it stands, Cuarón’s bare-but-effective fleshing-out of Bullock works well enough to suggest a third dimension to her character. But the enjoyment I had during this film had practically naught to do with the characters. Gravity is best enjoyed as a series of beautiful tracking shots, luscious photography and some of the best SFX money can buy. Kick back and enjoy the ride.

Gravity will be released on DVD/Blu-ray on February 25th, 2014.

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón; written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonás Cuarón; starring Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, and Ed Harris; 91 minutes.