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RATING: 3.5 stars (out of 4)

Imagine Apollo 13, only not so boring it makes everyone fall asleep every time they watch it. Imagine Speed, only with fewer exploding buses and more exploding space stations. Imagine Open Water, only with its heroes dodging flaming space shrapnel rather than sharks. Imagine Solaris, only where George Clooney, for the first time in his life, gets no play despite his best efforts. Now take all those ingredients, cram them all into one of those magic blenders they sell on QVC, and you will get something close to Gravity.

As a space movie, it’s unique there are no aliens to shoot, no laser guns to dodge and no jumpsuit-wearing, monotone-speaking people of the future. It comes from supergenius Mexican writer/director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Pan’s Labyrinth), who is so good at filmmaking, he could make a Geico commercial while wearing a blindfold and riding a unicycle and still somehow get it nominated for an Oscar.

He finds Clooney, still drifting in space from Solaris, and pairs him with Sandra Bullock, who has thankfully shed her obnoxious Oscar-winning Southern belle accent from The Blind Side and tough-talking FBI agent from The Heat, to play a woman who, although doubtlessly still obnoxious, has her obnoxiousness contained in a space helmet for most of the running time. Clooney, ever the optimist, still tries his best to make a play for Bullock even when he is drifting off into space toward certain death and even though his dirty, woman-eating lips can’t possibly affix themselves to hers, lest they be consumed by the vacuum of space.

The story is about astronauts who are adrift on a crumbling space station when a rogue satellite goes all Angry Birds Space and obliterates the station like so many intergalactic pig pens that house haughty, condescending oinkers. This puts Clooney and Bullock in even more compromising positions than a Kardashian on a tabloid cover, and the rest of the film is about their desperate scramble to survive.

Using a combination of spellbinding special effects, minimalist performances and frantic scrambles mixed in with lingering tension of empty, suspense-pulsing spaces, Cuaron creates a horror movie that sticks with you. He could have chosen any setting and even used finger puppets rather than actors, and the effect would have probably been about the same. This is a movie about the hopelessness of the void — the fact that in the end, we’re all isolated on our own prisons of infinite, cold darkness, scrambling to connect with anyone or anything that’s not a flying, fiery piece of space debris that’s bent on impaling you.

It’s a movie that’s not afraid to go deep or stare blankly at you to see if it can get you to blink first. For a remarkable period of time, there’s pretty much nothing happening onscreen. You’re stuck in your seat, traumatized not only by what you’ve just seen but the fear of what’s coming next, certain it’s definitely worse than whatever you’ve experienced. It’s very much like being a fan of the Arizona Cardinals.

Gravity is one of those movies that leaves you stuck in your seat after it’s finished, and not in the cheesy Marvel superhero flick way of teasing you with a 30-second clip of what’s coming next in the saga. Nor do you stay in your seat because you’re interested in watching the credits. You’re too mentally exhausted to move. Part of you still feels like you’re stuck out there with Sandra and George, clinging to nothingness, feeling that nothingness cling to you just as tightly.

Starring George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Ed Harris and Amy Warren. Written by Alfosnso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. 90 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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