Fess up, when you think of being a space explorer, you’re thinking Starfleet, or Rebel Fleet or Colonial Fleet, not NASA. You want to wear a spiffy uniform; serving (or commanding) sleek ship powered by unimaginable energies that can warp you from one end of the galaxy to the other. Everything inexplicably behaves as if you’re still under Earth-normal gravity and your threats are imperialistic aliens or vengeful robots, not… garbage. But truth can be stranger than fiction, and equally as riveting, as is the case with Gravity.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a Mission Specialist installing a component of her design on the Hubble Telescope. Houston informs her and the other astronauts that debris from a Russian satellite has destroyed other satellites and a tsunami of space junk is headed their way. What starts out as a "routine mission" suddenly becomes a fight for survival.

Gravity builds tension with the story of people not trying to save the universe, just themselves. We are reminded for every successful spaceflight, we’re just one small happenstance away from a potential Challenger or Columbia-level disaster. The director brings us into the story by using smooth camera moves that have us looking at Stone one moment and looking at space from her point of view, from inside her helmet, the next. We get caught up in the vertigo-inducing spins she experiences after the collision, we feel her frustration when nothing seems to go right.

Gravity is probably the most accurate depiction of real life in space on film in some time; we find that life in microgravity is not a graceful ballet but something more akin to roller derby, with everything moving too fast and stops sudden and bumpy. And stuff floating around the spacecraft all the time, everywhere.

Still, for all the things it gets right, this is still a movie, not a documentary, or even a training exercise. While there is no sound in space most of the time, there is the occasional bump or woosh for dramatic effect. It’s unlikely that the destruction of one satellite would cause a cascade effect that would destroy almost all of them and create the deadly shrapnel that destroys everything in its path—or that everything in space is in the same orbit. NASA would never send someone into space with only six months training; in real life Stone would still be on the ground, training more experienced mission specialists to do what she was sent up to do. And while there is cooperation among space agencies regarding things like docking collars, is piloting different spacecraft as easy as going from the family car to a rental?

But these are minor nits. Gravity is beautiful to look at and edge-of-your-seat engaging. It proves you don't have to face down dark lords or chest-busting ETs to be heroic. It’s the best adventure off-planet this year.

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