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More than a film about two people trapped in space, Gravity is an examination of a director walking a high wire. Alfonso Cuarón probably gained name recognition behind the camera on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (although Y Tu Mama Tambien got him that job), and he sets himself up here for either a staggering success or a bewildering experiment.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are space shuttle crew members working outside their vessel when they get a distress signal from Houston: A Russian satellite has exploded and the debris is rocketing through space at alarming speeds. Get the hell out of there. The debris splinters their ship and the astronauts have no choice but to float toward the International Space Station about an hour’s clip away. End goal: Somehow get back on terra firma.

The story isn’t terribly arresting, and the dialogue is pretty flimsy, but those things don’t matter much in the final accounting. This is Alfonso Cuarón answering a question about his own limits, not those of his characters. A Wellesian opening shot in the 17-minute range, the extreme location and character restrictions, and the degree of difficulty still associated with outer space visuals that look believable are all nods to film nerds and not general audiences.

Ordinarily, being so aware of a director’s craft is off-putting, but Cuarón’s style has always been to peer into the event horizon, as it were. He added depth and darkness to Potter, and the series was better for it. He employed a ton of long shots in Children of Men, too, and Y Tu Mama Tambien was hardly a traditional threesome movie. So is Gravity just an extremely talented filmmaker showing off? Possibly, yeah. But it ain’t bragging if you can back it up, and Gravity is one of the year’s legit achievements.

GRAVITY, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, rated PG-13, 91 mins.