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I vividly remember the first time I saw Goodfellas when it came out in 1990. It contained a breathtaking sequence following the characters played by Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco as they enter a nightclub from the service entrance, hurry through back rooms and kitchens, and emerge onto the floor of the club. What’s so memorable about the scene is that it takes place in a single unbroken shot, filmed by Steadicam operator Larry McConkey.

At least, it was memorable in 1990, a few years before the digital revolution exploded with Jurassic Park. Gravity opens with an unbroken, 15-minute shot outside of a space shuttle as two astronauts work to repair it and the third floats between them.

I’m not so jaded to say that it isn’t an impressive sequence. But it doesn’t take your breath away like the Scorsese sequence did. We’ve grown used to the idea that anything you can imagine can be rendered plausible onscreen using computers. That doesn’t mean that it’s easy to do, or cheap—despite having a cast of only two actors (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), Gravity cost in excess of $100 million. But imagining the roomsful of computer operators working on the spacemen and their damaged ship isn’t remotely as intriguing as thinking about the choreography of that nightclub scene, where one person missing his mark would mean the whole thing would have to be started again.

This is not to say that Gravity is a bad or even mediocre movie. As directed by Alfonso Cuaron (his first film in seven years, since Children of God), it’s the best movie of its kind since Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. The two movies share a spiritual approach to their stories of life affected by traumatic circumstances, in this case struggling to survive after the astronauts’ craft is destroyed by space debris. It lacks the impact of Lee’s story because Cuaron (who wrote the script with his son) doesn’t bring us as much into the characters: We are dazzled but never really emotionally involved.

Still, if you’ll settle for being dazzled, you can’t go wrong here.

Watch the trailer for Gravity

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