IN THIS NETFLIX ERA, it's remarkable to be reminded what going to the movies can feel like: dwarfed by bright images on a massive screen, drenched in sound, hearing a collective gasp rush through a crowd of strangers. It's an experience that's become increasingly rare: We've grown used to watching things on our laptops and TVs, corporate theater chains have made the moviegoing experience expensive and obnoxious, and in their attempts to make blockbusters that appeal to everyone, studios are making movies that appeal to no one. So when a big-budget film comes along that works—that hums along with grace and intensity, that makes you feel small, that manages to elicit that gasp—it's worth noting. So: Gravity.
Gravity is the film Alfonso Cuarón has been working on for years; as the follow-up to his stunning 2006 sci-fi thriller Children of Men (and before that, Y Tu Mamá También and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), it's as ambitious as it was long-gestating. Told in long—like, half-an-hour long—shots, with a camera that swoops and wobbles and soars through zero gravity, it follows one astronaut: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Nervous and nauseated, Ryan floats high above Earth, near the space shuttle Explorer, on an extra-vehicular repair mission with two other astronauts, exuberant Shariff (Paul Sharma) and wisecracking Kowalksi (George Clooney). The size and the beauty of Earth—hanging above these three tiny humans, then below them, then in front of them—is nothing less than jaw-dropping. But there's also a coldness, both literal and in the figurative, Kubrickian sense: Like the astronauts in 2001, Ryan is humbled and terrified by the vast, indifferent abyss of space. Ryan tries to keep it together all the same, like when Kowalski asks her why her heart rate is so high: "Keeping your lunch down in zero g is harder than it looks," she says, a sentiment likely to find some sympathetic grimaces in the audience.
But it's another line—Kowalski's wry "Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission"—that proves more prophetic. With shocking speed, space debris comes rushing at the Explorer, tearing through metal and bone. Ryan is sent spinning into the dark.
Unfettered by the things most filmmakers take for granted—like land, or actors who don't spend half their time upside down—Gravity pushes Cuarón's already impressive technical chops above and beyond. This is a story that could only be told with film, and Cuarón takes every opportunity to make it as surprising and intense as possible. Ryan's phenomenal bad luck is awful for her—and for audience members with anxiety issues—but it's a gift to Cuarón, who gleefully, subtly, and sadistically pushes the limits of modern filmmaking. (If any film's worth paying extra to see in 3D and on the biggest screen you can find, it's this one.)
For all that Gravity offers, there are things it doesn't: Its script (by Cuarón and his son, Jonás) doesn't come close to matching its visuals, and by the very nature of their casting, it's impossible not to think of Ryan and Kowalksi—two characters who should be the opposite of movie stars—as Space Sandra Bullock and Space George Clooney. But to dwell on those things would be to miss the point of Cuarón's frequently nerve-wracking, frequently awe-inspiring film. Gravity reminds you what it's like to really watch a movie. It's an experience not unlike Ryan's: to be overwhelmed by something beyond your control.