If the film ever explains exactly what the nature of their mission is, the details went right by me: Cuarón is concerned only with the stunning physical reality – or, to apply an abused term that here feels wholly apt, sur-reality – of their being there. Cinema is rife with space operas – this can only be described as space ballet, its human figures dancing even as they’re dying.

And die they do, in at least one of three cases, as disaster obviously strikes and the dance tumbles and speeds up into a far more perilous, but equally exquisite, freefall. “I have a bad feeling about this mission,” Matt jokes near the start – the first of several stock action-film lines the film reclaims with disquieting sincerity, as flying debris from a destroyed neighboring satellite lays waste to their craft. Cue a series of catastrophic collisions and attritions that are unsettlingly muffled by the unearthly silence of Chris Munro and Glenn Freemantle’s remarkable sound design: screaming is one thing, but in this film’s space, no one can hear you crash.

I’m loath to explain the circumstances that ultimately require Ryan to navigate her own path back to Earth: partly because the film’s sharp, unexpectedly sentiment-soaked emotional switchbacks deserve protection, but also because story feels secondary to “Gravity” in the best possible way. Feeling is narrative here – physical feeling, psychological feeling, bruised and agitated either way – as the film ceases star-gazing (without dialling back on the gobsmacking pyrotechnics and deep-focus space vistas) to concentrate on the in-the-moment specifics of Ryan’s survival. Effortlessly sympathetic and resolute even when cocooned to the point of invisibility in a spacesuit, Sandra Bullock puts her impressively restrained performance to the fore just when the film needs her to, without straying from the character’s slightly dour vulnerability or succumbing to focus-pulling bravado; it’s a role that at once requires a movie star, and requires her not to be one.

Some may feel disconcerted or even disappointed that “Gravity” shifts from a mode of cool (even avant-garde) observational spectacle to a more human-focused survival story – you might choose to see it as a bloodless final-girl horror movie. The gear change comes with unceremonious abruptness, yet I couldn’t tell you if it’s later or earlier than halfway through. It may not sound like high praise that I had no sense of timing throughout this thrillingly brief 91-minute film, but I imagine you can’t feel the minutes ticking by in space either. The immersive rhythmic continuity of Lubezki’s camerawork and Cuarón and Mark Sanger’s deceptively tight editing is such that it’s hard to mentally organize the film into scenes and sequences after the fact.

I do know, though, that “Gravity” ends in a wholly different register – tonally, visually, emotionally – to the one it begins in, as Cuarón embraces both the Hollywood trappings and, more riskily, the amorphous spirituality of his script with an emphatic lack of apology. (I felt my own conviction waver in a tricky late scene with Clooney that edges on patriarchal Old Hollywood syrup, but the emotional payoff is rousing enough to justify the means.) There’s a note of bombast to the finale that feels hard-earned after the staggering physical trials of what has gone before, and I do mean staggering: “Gravity” is a film both short and vast, muscular and quivery, as certain about one Great Beyond as it is curious about another.

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Guy Lodge is a South African-born critic and sometime screenwriter. In addition to his work at In Contention, he is a freelance contributor to Variety, Time Out, Empire and The Guardian. He lives well beyond his means in London.