Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star in Gravity. Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

In theaters Thursday, Oct. 3

4 stars (out of 4 stars)

This isn’t just a film. This is a wondrous, heart-stopping experience.

And it must be said upfront: This experience needs to be taken in on the biggest, IMAX-iest screen possible. You’ll think you were just shot into space. Actually, you won’t have a chance to think at all. The epic 13-minute opening act alone unspools without a single merciful cut.

The ominous words appear first: “At 600 km above Earth. . . there is nothing to carry sound. No air pressure. No oxygen. Life on space is impossible.” With Earth glowing in the background and the sun about to rise, a crew of astronauts floats into focus. Two of them, an easygoing veteran on his last mission (George Clooney, perfectly cast) and a methodical rookie engineer (Sandra Bullock, more on her below), banter while doing rote mechanical work. They will soon survive a sudden and terrifying disaster.

Is the pulse starting to race yet? Good. Because those 13 minutes aren’t up yet.

It’s Bullock who must ultimately persevere under the extreme circumstances and figure out how in the world to get home. And what a nerve-racking thrill it is to watch her undertake the endeavor, especially when she makes a few critical mistakes along the way.

Masterfully directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), this taut 3-D sci-fi marvel dazzles on a visual level along the lines of Avatar and 2001: A Space Odyssey and frightens to the core a la the original Alien. Indeed, in space no one can hear you scream . . .  so when Bullock helplessly spirals through the atmosphere and counts down her diminishing oxygen level, you can only gasp for air along with her. 

Yet amid all the how-did-they-do-that effects, Bullock is a quietly powerful presence. Playing someone who heads to space to escape her tragic problems back home in Illinois, the actress conveys both blind fear and inner strength -- even in her cumbersome space suit. Consider her knockout performance one of the film’s innumerable wows.