By Eric Henderson

I don’t remember which movie he was reviewing, but I distinctly remember a Roger Ebert rave that opened with an anecdote about how Ebert ran into a critic who had just exited from the movie he was about to head into to review.

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He asked the critic how he liked the movie, and the critic told him that he had just seen it for the third or fourth time.

I flashed on that passage when I found out that two other fellow Twin Cities movie critics who screened Gravity with me a few weeks ago went to the second press screening last week. Insider baseball isn’t exactly the same thing as “publicity you can’t buy.” But as I’m sure I don’t need to tell you how critics can be notoriously difficult to please, I think mentioning the fact at least partially gives you an impression of just how completely head-over-heels many people are for Alfonso Cuarón’s triumphantly gripping new film. (If that’s not enough, behold the movie’s unreal “fresh” rating over at Rotten Tomatoes, which as of today stands at 98 percent.)

To gild the lily, I hasten to add I cannot wait to see it a second time myself.

Cuarón’s film is perhaps the leanest white elephant I’ve ever seen, a monstrously maximalist piece of popular filmmaking that also strips away most of the elements mass audiences usually come to expect from their blockbusters — things like incidental plotlines, character arcs, colorful supporting characters, comic relief, slice-n-dice editing patterns. All of those simple carbs have been cleared away here, leaving nothing but the lean proteins of muscular action filmmaking prowess.

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Sandra Bullock stars as Dr. Ryan Stone, a first-time space walker aboard the space shuttle Explorer along with George Clooney’s shuttle commander Matt Kowalski, a veteran enjoying the last ride of his long and storied career. Their mission is mundane as can be: swap out pats on the Hubble telescope. The movie’s incredibly long opening shot establishes that otherworldly mix of weightless cosmic dimensions against a vague sense of ennui. Of course, the inertia doesn’t last long, because a chain-reaction of satellite collisions has sent a belt of debris hurtling right into orbit with the vulnerable shuttle at approximately 17,200 mph (or thereabouts).

Once Stone and Kowalski are detached from the ship and hurtling through the darkness of space with nothing to save them, Cuarón’s camera becomes itself detached from anything resembling stasis. The remainder of the film is a disorienting series of immaculately choreographed routines vis-à-vis the Ballet Company of Sir Isaac Newton. Remember the enchanting pas de deux between WALL-E and EVE in Pixar’s masterpiece five years ago? Gravity is a feature-length fugue variation on that theme, as Stone and Kowalski try to navigate their way to the International Space Station — Kowalski losing juice on his boosters, Stone very close to maxing out her oxygen supply.

OK, I can sympathize with some of the (very few) skeptical reviews that carp that the human element of the film is somewhat overwhelmed by the sheer, unapologetic spectacle of it. This is in a number of ways a culminatory film for a generation raised on Spielberg, and there will always be a subset of those whose sensibilities run antithetical toward the language Spielberg nurtured. And to be totally honest, as strong as Bullock is in the role, I would probably have loved the film just as much had it starred the reanimated corpse of Phyllis Diller. (More so, even, but that’s neither here nor there.)

What I can’t fathom is how the snob set has so willingly blinded themselves to what seems baldly self-evident: that the movie is as much a synthesis of narrative and non-narrative tropes (or avant-garde, if you prefer) as it is an action-adventure thrill ride. I sensed as much in common between Gravity and the works of Michael Snow as I did between the film and, oh, Event Horizon. Beyond the mounting tension and cinematographic acrobatics (lenser Emmanuel Lubezki is, by now, a saint among film fans) is a seamless study of the principals of negative space, without ever losing focus on the human will to survive.

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With Children of Men and now, in spades, with Gravity, Cuarón forges on in his mission — much like James Cameron did with Titanic — to make some of the most virtuosic films of our era that also tear away from their own “whoa” factor by stressing their very unfashionable lack of irony. There may be better films to come this year, but there aren’t likely to be more palpably breathless movie experiences.

Eric Henderson