Its curious that no movie set beyond the stratosphere has ever won the most coveted of Academy Awards. Apollo 13 couldnt do it. Neither could 2001: A Space Odyssey. Heck, even the highly praised Star Wars couldnt make the grade. But I dare Oscar voters to defy Gravity when time comes to pick this years best-picture winner.

Its literally out of this world, pulling double duty as an intense thriller and a marvel of modern movie-making aptitude. How good is it? Lets just say it makes the advanced 3-D technology in Avatar look quaint, as visionary director Alfonso Cuaron thrusts us into the heavens for an adventure so lifelike you can almost reach out and touch the stars. And who wouldnt want to reach out and touch George Clooney and Sandra Bullock? Both are the epitome of heavenly bodies, even if their well-toned torsos are somewhat obscured by bulky spacesuits a majority of the flight. No matter. Not when their acting is whats lifting Gravity into the highest orbit. Both are superb at playing the lone survivors of a horrendous space accident that destroys their shuttle and kills a handful of crewmates in a matter of a few chilling seconds. But that will prove to be only the first in a series of near-death experiences, as the two drift precariously through space tethered to nothing but each other.

If youre going to die, you couldnt ask for a more spectacular backdrop high above the big blue marble, looking beautiful and peaceful from our vantage point 200 miles up. Cuaron knows this and cleverly uses the Earth in direct juxtaposition to Bullocks astronaut/scientist Ryan Stone, who is anything but a rock as her oxygen runs short and her odds run long. With all communications lost, her only steading force is Clooneys veteran flyboy Matt Kowalski, a master BSer whose reassuring presence repeatedly stops her from packing it in. As he proved in the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, Clooney is more than just a pretty face. He also possesses a commanding voice, which he uses to marvelous effect in fully fleshing out his character from behind an all-encumbering spacesuit. As youd expect, he furnishes Kowalski with a bevy of self-deprecating wisecracks that never fail to make you laugh, even in the face of impending doom. And make no mistake, Gravity is so visceral that we need Kowalskis wit and brains every bit as much as Ryan.

The movie, though, belongs almost entirely to Bullock, who delivers a performance filled with immense sorrow and regret. It doesnt take a rocket scientist to discern that her trip into space is more of an escape than an adventure, as she futilely tries to outrun a heartbreaking past. Bullock makes you feel it, too, like few actresses could. But its the unexpected courage and fight she imbues in Ryan thats sure to put Bullock at the head of the Oscar race. I dont think Ive ever seen her so fierce, yet controlled. But what brings it all home is the transformation Ryan makes from a state of meek resignation to an intense longing to live, a dramatic shift that surprises even herself. And theres no one but Bullock to pull it off, as the brilliant, metaphorical script by Cuaron and his son, Jonas, calls upon the Oscar-winner to spend a great deal of the movie alone with her chaotic thoughts.

The surest sign of the depth of Bullocks performance is in her ability to get us to focus on her, even when shes surrounded by some of the most astounding 3-D special effects ever set to film. From the shuttle, to the International Space Station to a tiny Russian Soyuz capsule that may well serve as Ryans coffin, everything looks breathtakingly real. Credit that to special effects whiz Tim Webber and Cuarons go-to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (Children of Men). Together, they create one mouth-dropping image after another, incorporating computers, light boxes and high-tech harnesses to seamlessly create a weightless environment where in a split second an untethered human can quickly become just another chunk of space debris. If both Webber and Lubeski dont win Oscars, the only thing vaster than space is the voters craniums.

Hopefully, Gravity will also finally give Cuaron (A Little Princess, Children of Men) his long-overdue moment in the sun. Having consistently created outstanding pictures that were as well-acted as they were gorgeous, Cuaron has had to settle for being a critics darling. The only exception being his helming of The Prisoner of Azkaban, the third, and best, of the Harry Potter flicks. But Gravity is just too exceptional to overlook. Its smart, dazzling and, of course, terrifying. But its also exciting, life-affirming and just plain awesome. Its like buying a ticket into space and never coming down.

GRAVITY (PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.) Cast includes Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. Co-written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Grade: A