This review does not contain spoilers beyond the basic premise.
Wow. That's pretty much all that went through my head as the credits began to roll on Gravity. It's an end-to-end masterpiece that caught me nearly totally by surprise.
The film, directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, depicts the struggle of a pair of astronauts to survive an orbital disaster. Cuarón doesn't drag things out - it's not ten minutes before things go wrong. Really wrong. After that, we experience what amounts to an eighty minute struggle for life. The end result is remarkably tight. There is not a second of superfluous material here, and hardly a minute for the protagonists (or the audience) to catch their breath.
While there are a few technical and scientific issues with the overall story, the action in space is remarkably depicted. The enemy here is clearly the zero-gravity environment and our astronauts find it inhibits even the most trivial task. Nearly the entire film takes place in zero gravity and never does it look like anything but reality. Space looks harsh, challenging, and basically not fun.
This attention to detail carries over to the audio. Gasps for breath, heartbeats, and the clank of astronaut-on-metal dominate the soundtrack. Space is silent, but the helmets and capsules of the astronauts are a nearly constant cacophony of warnings and alarms. The orchestral score is solid, if a bit predictable. But for many of the film's more dramatic scenes, it sinks into the background and harsh sounds of survival dominate.
But neither the story nor the attention to detail nor the sound design are the real star here. Gravity is visually stunning. It certainly helps that the Earth provides one of nature's most beautiful backdrops, but the cinematography transcends simply gorgeous backgrounds. Nearly every moment of this film is astonishing to see. These are the long shots of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but at a pace Kubrick never dared to explore. Oh, and this film is a must-see in 3D. Space is truly a three-dimensional environment and Gravity exploits the 3D medium better than virtually every previous film.
Gravity is the sort of film you just don't see in mainstream cinema anymore. Its story has been stripped to the essentials. The visuals are stunning, but never flashy. We aren't told to like the characters, we just admire them for the characteristics they display. This is man versus environment taken to the ultimate degree and it is a treat to watch.