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Space is a beautiful thing. It’s quiet, serene and you simply can’t beat the view. But it’s also a dangerous place, where the slightest mistake could mean the end of a life. The smallest tear in a suit, a forgotten about harness or even the sudden appearance of unexpected space debris could be catastrophic. It’s the latter situation our characters find themselves dealing with in Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity.” While out on an otherwise calm spacewalk, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) receive news from Houston that debris from a destroyed satellite is heading their way. They’re ordered to abandon the mission, but it’s too late. The debris crashes into their ship, destroying it and leaving them floating out in space, with virtually zero hope of survival.

That’s the grim set-up of “Gravity,” a movie so intense you’re likely to have heart palpitations. As I watched them float around helplessly, with nothing surrounding them but the dark vacuum of space and spacesuits that were quickly running out of air, I realized I had been taking my wonderful inhalations of oxygen for granted my entire life. Never before had I been so happy to have my feet planted squarely on the ground. For the first time ever while sitting in a dark theater, I realized how lucky I was to be alive, to be sitting in a safe, comfortable area surrounded by friends and not dealing with the nightmare onscreen. Forget monsters and boogeymen. Space is more terrifying than them all.

The things you’ll see in this movie, from the soundless explosions to the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet debris to the harrowing space leaps where the odds of survival are about one in a million, are a sight to behold. As things get more stressful and increasingly hopeless, your heart will be pounding so fast, you’ll question the strength of your bosom and hope it can contain it from escaping like a chestburster from “Alien.” These moments are flawless and offer up some of the most frightening beauty you’re likely to ever see.

The problem is that it doesn’t follow through on its bleak premise. While I certainly won’t give it away, it takes a single plot device, one used by countless other movies that have no clue how to give their protagonist the motivation to go on, and manages to turn itself from a wholly gripping movie into something that is, quite frankly, kind of silly. You could argue that the circumstances that are playing out add validity to what finally occurs, but such an argument is grasping at straws. It’s understandable to want to defend a movie this incredible, but that doesn’t mean it’s incapable of stumbling. If “Gravity” proves anything, it’s that even the most calculated, well thought out movies can make stupid decisions. Luckily, one stupid decision doesn’t equate to a bad movie. Quite the contrary, “Gravity” is spectacular, a thoughtful and well-rounded action-esque movie that separates itself from a sea of vapid, nonsensical explosion-fests.

Where it lacks the thematic intricacies of other science fiction films like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” it makes up for with pure visual terror. And that terror, that feeling of utter despair, is brought forth beautifully by the talented duo onscreen. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar in 2010 for her portrayal of the no-nonsense protagonist in the based-on-a-true-story hit, “The Blind Side,” despite being the weakest of all contenders in the Best Actress category. It was a stupefying decision to even give her a nomination, much less a win. She may not have deserved it there, but she certainly does here. Unlike the other popular disaster-in-space movie, “Apollo 13,” this doesn’t flash back and forth from the characters in danger to the workers on the ground trying to help them out. It never leaves the black emptiness that is space, which gives the film a focus and allows Bullock to flex her acting muscle like she never has before. She is absolutely fantastic here. This time, the buzz is warranted.

“Gravity” had the potential to be the absolute best movie of the year and, just perhaps, one of the most visually stunning and intense science fiction films of all time. It truly is that good, but that lazy cinematic plot ploy reared its ugly head to bump it down a notch or two. But dropping from a “best of the year” or “best of all time” movie to one that can still be classified as jaw-dropping and emotionally draining (in a good way) is hardly a bad thing. Even if you too have similar issues with the plot turn in question, it will hardly cross your mind when you medidate on the film  later. You’ll instead think about the gorgeous visuals, the many, many sequences of utter fright and the career defining performances. “Gravity” may have failed to be the absolute best movie of the year, but it’s still one of.

Gravity receives 4.5/5

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