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It has been a slow year for movies. I am not saying that good movies haven’t come out in 2013. The World’s End was interesting. The Butler provided us with a unique view of history and The Way Way Back gets a thumbs up from me simply for being the first real Cape Cod movie since … ever. But none of them were great by any stretch of the imagination, and the utter lack of great film-making present this year has caused critics to overrate them. For a while, I was worried that we might go a whole year without a truly amazing film. But finally, an honest-to-God masterpiece has arrived on cinema screens in the form of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, a film people will be watching long after this year’s other releases have been forgotten.

Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a NASA scientist making her first trip into space when the space shuttle she is on is destroyed by massive amounts of debris. Left stranded in space with another astronaut, Lt. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney at his charming movie star best), the two of them must fight to survive in the unforgiving wasteland of space. It is this simple primal fear from which Gravity derives most of its power. Part of what makes it so haunting is the plausibility of the scenario, something that is particularly refreshing considering that Hollywood deals more in science fiction than science fact. And the script never lets up, with our leads constantly facing another life-or-death obstacle in their wake. Though the film is too intense for the faint of heart, it is not a dumb scare-fest either. Gravity relies much more on atmosphere (no pun intended) than on gore, and although the two characters are thrown into a $100 million dollar sci-fi flick, they never feel like cardboard action heroes. We get to know them as people. Kowalski, the charismatic pro trying his darndest to keep the situation under control and Stone, the quiet ingénue still recovering from the death of her daughter. The screen-writers deserve special praise for their treatment of Bullock’s character. Though women in movies are often regulated to the role of eye-candy, Dr. Stone is a full, rounded character who carries much of the film on her shoulders. She is neither a damsel in distress nor a hardened professional. We get to see the side of her that is vulnerable and scared, and because of this, her triumphs are all the more rewarding.

The cinematography is Oscar-worthy, alternating between the void of space and the beauty of the earth below. Director Cuaron even works a subtle spiritual allegory into the film. But it is Bullock’s performance which anchors the film. You can feel her struggle to overcome her vulnerability, and find her inner strength and the will to survive. Simple put, Gravity is a modern masterpiece.

Rating: ***** out of *****.

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