Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone
George Clooney as Matt Kowalsky
Ed Harris as voice of Mission Control
Orto Ignatiussen as voice of Aningaaq
Paul Sharma as voice of Shariff
Amy Warren as voice of Explorer Captain

Directed by Alfonso Cuarón

The apotheosis of the disaster movie, on the outside “Gravity” is much like the rest of its ilk – a diagram of the intensity of the human survival instinct; on the inside, however, it is a meditation on the attraction and horror of isolation told with such grace and craft as to take your breath away.

And we’re talking isolation on the grandest of scales–260 miles straight up–where Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is interrupted mid-mission by a hailstorm of man-made debris which shreds the space shuttle she was attached to and sends her tumbling off into space. But we’re also talking isolation on the most minute of scales as co-writer/director Alfonso Cuarón (“Children of Men”) works his tail off to keep us planted firmly (and sometimes literally) within Ryan’s point-of-view. He’s realized, rightly, that if a disaster film is about voyeurism and viewing death and destruction from a safe distance then the audience must be part of it. Like the proverbial father forcing his son to smoke that entire box of cigars he will make you re-examine that desire for vicarious doom and whether you’ve thought it through entirely. Possibly while you’re in the bathroom vomiting from motion sickness.

This is a good thing.

It’s also a distinct possibility if viewing the film in IMAX 3D as Cuarón and his crew have pushed the envelope of skill like a squad of mini-Yeager’s, starting with the nearly 12-minute long opening shot that encompasses the introduction of the characters, the destruction of the shuttle, Stone’s dizzying spill into the void and breathless rescue by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). It is “Gravity” in microcosm: epic yet intimate, technically groundbreaking yet understated and subtle, almost purely visual except for a few bursts of hackneyed dialog. The bar Cuarón has set for the film is unimaginably high and it has exacted some of the best work of his crew’s careers in trying to clear it, from Emmanuel Lubezki’s exquisite cinematography to the cracker jack editing (also the work of Cuarón who seems everywhere in the film) to the seamless work of Tim Webber’s Framestore CFC in creating the unfilmable.

And none of which would matter if Bullock did not turn in what is easily the best performance of her life. A performance made all the more remarkable by the fact that, for the better part of 90 minutes, she is the only person on screen with no one (and frequently nothing) to react to barring the occasional appearance of Clooney’s more classically heroic Kowalski. Getting rescued by George Clooney turns out not to be quite the bed of roses E! would have us believe, however, as the space station they’re counting on for rescue is deserted, the remaining escape pod unable to reach earth, a fire is welling up in one of the remaining sections and oh yes the cloud of debris that destroyed their shuttle is coming back around for another pass as it orbits the earth at 50,000 mph. As edge of the seat brilliant as Cuarón’s ‘how much more sh*t can this woman go through?’ symphony of cliffhangers is, it’s not the thrills that give “Gravity” wings. It’s watching Bullock’s Stone slowly come alive again.

Cuarón knows what drives himself and all of his co-voyeurs is the conflict between the desire to be part of other people’s lives and the fear of being hurt in the process. To them and for them he has created this woman who has faced with a loss so devastating she’s flown up to the one place where there are guaranteed to be no people so that she, and by extension we, can come to grips with exactly what that means and decide whether it’s worth it to keep going or better to simply lie back and wait for the end.

Looking back from the future there will likely be some that point to some of Cuarón’s earlier, less plot-driven films as his definitive work, but nothing in his oeuvre so thoroughly encompasses all of his skills and faults as a filmmaker as “Gravity” does. Sure, a couple of twists are badly telegraphed, and the dialog (when there is any) tries far too hard and accomplishes little but highlight how much better the story is when told as pure cinema. But none of that matters; after all “what beauty doth not have some strangeness about its proportion?” or something like that.

Even, or I should say especially, when “Gravity” crashes, it soars. A true masterpiece.