As film festivals go, Venice is a relaxed affair—heavy on Italian charm, light on Cannes-style bureaucracy and security—but you wouldn’t know it from the white knuckles at the Wednesday morning press screening of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, this edition’s opening film.
A visually astonishing, often terrifying thriller that finds Sandra Bullock and George Clooney stranded in space, the film provided a jolt of intensity to an event that seems surprisingly low-key this year.
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Indeed, there were a fair number of empty seats in the theatre and free tables at one of the sun-baked outdoor café areas that make this sea-side festival such a pleasant bubble to play in. As one French critic told me mournfully, fastening 3D glasses to her face in preparation for the movie: “Not as many people come to Venice now."
That’s more a reflection of the cash-strapped journalism business than of the festival itself, which remains second only to Cannes in terms of international prestige and calibre of films selected.
Gravity was anticipated with fervor—not just as a starry, high-profile start to this festival, but also as the unofficial kick-off of the fall movie season, known in America as the Oscar race.
And judging by the rapturous press reaction, the film, out in the U.S. on Oct. 4, will likely leap to the top of the list of titles aspiring to awards glory. The Mexican-born Cuarón made two dazzling pictures prior to this—the exhilarating, sensual road movie Y Tu Mamá También (2002) and the gripping dystopian thriller Children of Men (2006) – but nothing he’s done could prepare us for the sheer technical mastery on display in “Gravity”.
Centering on Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a scientist, and Matt Kowalski (Clooney), a seasoned astronaut, the film begins with a jaw-dropping 13-minute shot that glides, dips and turns with the two characters in space as they fix a mechanical problem outside their shuttle.
To say that things go wrong from there would be an understatement.
The film’s first half is an overwhelmingly tense and immersive sensory experience, as Cuarón tracks the anxious Stone and wisecracking Kowalski trying to find their way back to Earth while contending with diminishing oxygen supplies and rapidly drifting debris from a Russian satellite accident.
Alternating objective and subjective perspectives—the latter showing Stone’s view of the vast, dark emptiness around her—the director, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual supervisor Timothy Webber provide a master class in fluid camerawork, bold, unfussy imagery and special effects that put most recent Hollywood blockbusters to shame.
As things turn bad, then worse, for our two leads, Gravity becomes a ballet of bodies in motion—floating, hurtling, free-falling, struggling—punctuated by Steven Price’s foreboding score and the sound of Stone’s ragged breathing.
The casting of Bullock and Clooney is key to how effective the film is in jangling our nerves; their familiar movie-star faces (visible mostly from underneath their helmets), warm voices, and easy, teasing rapport soothe us in several of Gravity’s harrowing moments, and make things even more disconcerting when their mission devolves into pure terror.
Will Cuaron actually kill off two of American cinema’s sweethearts? No spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Gravity offers one of the most vivid big-screen evocations of panic I can remember.
Much of the film is so transporting that it’s a letdown when a handful of corny Hollywoodisms start popping up during the second half. Cuarón and his screenwriting partner, his son Jonás, have given Bullock’s character a back story that becomes too prominent—particularly during a monologue that seems intended to serve as an emotional climax, but is distractingly sentimental.
That scene, and a handful of others, brings out some Bullock-y mannerisms that mar an otherwise beautifully modulated performance, and adds some unneeded fat to the film’s generally lean 90 minutes.
Gravity shows Cuarón bravely pushing the form; it's a bit of a shame he felt inclined to pull on our heartstrings in the process.