Space is terrifying. No water, no sound,  no oxygen. Humankind’s ongoing fascination with the void above our heads has given us several monumental (and terrible) movies, but Gravity pushes the genre to its limits. Two astronauts spin through space, with nothing to hold on to but one another. The film’s tagline is “don’t let go” – and by god, how you won’t want to.”

Gravity is nothing short of filmmaking mastery. For such a simple premise (Sandra Bullock! Space!), the film gets surprisingly deep over the course of 90 minutes. Teeming with images of birth and isolation, director Alfonso Cuarón grapples with these very human issues in an inhuman atmosphere. The first thing the audience learns from Gravity is that life in space is impossible. For Dr. Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, being left adrift is not only about survival – it’s about isolation. The loss of communication with planet Earth gives the film an edge on other thrillers: no one is there to save the heroes now. Repeated communication to “Houston in the blind” only serves to further our fears that Kowalski and Stone are totally and completely alone.

Part of the film’s mastery is the sound of silence. In space, there is no air, no sound, and Cuarón plays up to this wonderfully. Often, only Steven Price’s excellent score can be heard: even more often, there is no sound at all. The magnificent first scene of destruction is played out in silence, making the film all the more unnerving. The dialogue adheres to this rule too – often we can only hear Bullock’s laboured breathing through her suit. The range in Bullock’s breathing takes the audience into the film – the audience finds themselves sipping her disappearing oxygen supply just as she does.

I can’t praise Sandra Bullock’s performance enough – it’s utterly faultless. While George Clooney seems to be on (sorry) autopilot here, she handles her character’s story arc with a kind of power rarely given to a woman in a thriller. She is totally in command of this difficult role, from her dry sense of humour to her utter terror at the loneliness of space. It’s interesting that this role could so easily have been given to a man – but by risking Hollywood’s expectations, Gravity has given us one of the most powerful female performances in years.   Bullock said herself in interviews that the director took a risk by casting a woman as the lead in a sci-fi blockbuster – “there’s nothing about my character that screams female”. Yet Dr. Ryan Stone never falls into the clichéd traps of weeping woman or ham fisted, cold hearted woman. She’s a sensitive, well drawn character faced with a terrible situation and ultimately becomes a symbol of hope.

Symbolism is big in Gravity. It’s the kind of symbolism that’s easy to dismiss as quasi-philosophical nonsense and enjoy the film anyway, but the images of rebirth are the ones you can’t escape. The film teems with foetal imagery, from the cords connecting Kowalski and Stone, curled up in zero gravity while light streams in from behind her. By connecting space to gestation, Cuarón has created a story of rebirth and new beginnings as well as a sci-fi thriller. Ryan Stone comes full circle over the film’s ninety minutes and is “reborn” at the end of the film. This is Alfonso Cuarón – we expect symbolism – but it doesn’t detract from enjoying Gravity as a thriller that actually thrills. Stunning visuals and a tightly focussed plot make Gravity a tense, forceful masterpiece. Believe the hype.