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Warner Bros.
Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in "Gravity."

There have been a lot of options for science fiction fans in the last few months, but sadly, few have delivered more than mediocre escapism served with a heavy dose of suspended disbelief.

Luckily, with the specter of a so-so summer in the rear-view mirror, "Gravity" arrives to remind us how profound a movie experience can be.

Even in an era when many homes boast massive flat-screen TVs and rumbling surround sound systems, "Gravity" is a film that demands to be seen in the theater (on IMAX, if at all possible). It may also be the first film to incorporate 3-D technology as a legitimate device instead of a simple gimmick. It's hard to think of an environment better prepared for the effect than the zero gravity of outer space.

As the film opens, we find a small crew of astronauts halfway through a routine day of work, assuming "routine" is an appropriate way to describe floating in outer space hundreds of miles above the earth's surface. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on her first trip to space on a mission to make repairs to the Hubble telescope. Four other astronauts fill out the crew, including Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran close to retirement whose dream is to break the record for the longest space walk.

At first, all is peaceful and ponderous and marvelous, and the audience is content to take in the spectacle. But the crew's mission is quickly shelved when they get word that debris from an exploded Russian satellite is on its way. Before the crew can get to safety, the cosmic shrapnel storm rips through the ship and the telescope, sending Stone spinning off into deep space in the process. By the time the space dust clears, only Kowalski and Stone are left, and the movie's premise becomes very simple: Are they going to get home to safety, or wind up as orbiting popsicles?

Let's just say that the prospects look pretty dim against "Gravity's" imposing backdrop.

"Gravity" isn't immune to occasional stretches of the imagination, but it has a lot more in common with Stanley Kubrick's hyper-realistic "2001: A Space Odyssey" than it does with "Oblivion" or "After Earth." In some ways it's hard to even think of "Gravity" as science fiction at all. But anyone worried that 90 minutes of ponderous "2001"-style boredom is about to grant them a $15 nap should take heart: "Gravity" is anything but boring. "Gravity" is a tension-filled, visual spectacle.

Buzz is already being generated around Bullock's turn as Dr. Stone, and it is deserved. But "Gravity" should be getting award consideration in several categories. Its spectacular cinematography creates a powerful juxtaposition between the sublime beauty of the cosmos and its powerful isolation. The film comes to us from director Alfonso Cuaron, who also directed the 2006 dystopian nightmare "Children of Men" and 2004's "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (one of the franchise's more admired entries). Some uneven pacing mars the effort a bit, but Cuaron's total effort is too impressive to linger on the odd complaint.

Most importantly — at least in terms of your moviegoing budget — "Gravity" is one film that can justify the extra expense of an IMAX or 3-D ticket. Instead of toying with the viewer, its 3-D adds depth and character without feeling obligatory. The entire film is packed with the kind of beautiful imagery that could inspire a whole new generation of aspiring astronauts (and horrified parents). Even the scenes of destruction are presented with a poetic beauty that becomes haunting when contrasted to the silence of space.

"Gravity" is rated an appropriate PG-13 for some early language (including one use of the so-called "F-word"), plus a few moments of gore/terror as Kowalski and Stone recover the bodies of their fallen crew members.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on the "KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English Composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at www.woundedmosquito.com.