Gravity is one of the most moving and beautiful films to grace the silver screen in living memory.

High above the Earth a small crew of American astronauts composed of Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a handful of others are busy repairing a satellite when catastrophe strikes. The Russians have scuttled one of their own satellites, which has sent debris orbiting the planet at lethal speeds, destroying everything in its path, including the American shuttle, sending Ryan and Matt floating in the darkness of space. With their ride home obliterated, the two must do the impossible and find another way while fighting off despair, extreme temperatures, suffocation and while dodging the constant debris.

Gravity is a tremendous achievement in every regard, beginning with its visuals. The cinematography is very deliberate and audiences will feel director Alfonso Cuarón’s touch in every frame. From the hyper-long takes to the individual bric-a-brac floating in front of the camera in zero gravity, the experience never feels like anything was left to chance, but the film retains a distinct beauty in its controlled visual presentation. So while a master oil painting might have the unintended strokes of errant brush hairs, Gravity is more along the lines of geometry art created from repeating patterns in math. It can sometimes feel a little sterile, but this is a director who knows exactly what he wants audiences to see. So when a single teardrop floats away from a character’s face, it’s a sure bet the camera will focus on it and nothing else. It’s also a clever way to help break up shots without switching camera angles and help sell the feeling of extremely long takes.

Those who were impressed by Cuarón in Children of Men will be equally impressed here. The takes seem to go on forever, especially in the beginning when the camera seamlessly penetrates an astronaut’s helmet to give that character’s POV, and then just as seamlessly slip out and pull away from the distressed astronaut to highlight the loneliness of infinite space. It’s positively breathtaking and brings the audience into the situation like no other effect can.

Moreover, this is one of the few films that absolutely deserves to be seen in IMAX 3-D. Even though the effects were done in post-production, they’re still extremely convincing. The effects are also used appropriately in that audiences are only poked in the eye when the experience would heighten the scene. So when space debris starts wreaking havoc, it’ll be difficult not to wince when it comes flying out of the screen.

The other half of this film is the triumph of the human spirit. Gravity offers one of the best settings for a survival story. The environment of space is harsher, more desolate and more expansive than anywhere on Earth that won’t outright kill. Humans only survive in space due to extraordinary measures that only nominally reduce a human’s fragility. Worst of all, on Earth there’s always the hope of rescue, but in space you are truly on your own. It’s that insurmountable despair that is the biggest obstacle in this survival situation. It would be easier to give up and die, and almost preferable than to experience the crushing defeat of missing a one and only shot at surviving. So to watch the characters in Gravity rally their spirits is a heartening experience that will touch on aspects of the human condition that have long been neglected.

With that in mind, it’s ironic, but the human performances are almost an afterthought. The human element is necessary for this formula to work, but these are not memorable characters beyond their archetypes. Nevertheless, the actors do fine jobs. Sandra Bullock does everything she needs to do physically and says her lines with the correct inflections to carry the film handily. George Clooney’s perpetually upbeat character is refreshing, but only because the situation seems so bleak. Otherwise, these characters could have been played by any competent actor and the film would have been just as impactful. It’s the visuals and story that sell this film, and that’s what audiences will remember the most.

Gravity is a one-of-kind experience that should not be missed. It will have viewers on the edge of their seats, wondering for the first time in a long time how and if characters are going to survive. The striking visuals might feel a little cold and sterile, but even that works for a film set in the cold sterility of space. With its haunting images, unique setting and a perfectly complementary score, Gravity is more than a film; it’s a personal experience that will linger with viewers for some time afterward.