Since JFK vowed to put a man on the moon in 1961, space has represented untold possibility, hope and optimism. But once we actually got there, we realized
what a terrifying place it can be. An endless void, freezing and/or burning, a place without air or life. But most terrifyingly of all, if you die in
space, you die alone: thousands of miles above and away from your loved ones. And more than anything, aren’t we most afraid of dying alone? Alfonso Cuarón seems to think so, as that’s the fear that drives his new film, the extraordinary “Gravity.”
The long-awaited project opens the Venice Film Festival today seven years after the premiere of Cuarón’s last film, “Children Of Men,” arrived on the Lido, and while the anticipation over the picture—several years in the making—has been breathless, the
filmmaker’s return manages to live up to, or even exceed, those hopes at almost every level. Over a nearly seamless opening shot that clocks in at least
fifteen minutes long, the director introduces his subjects, veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), on his last expedition, and
scientist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a nervous, haunted first-timer.
It’s a gentle, enjoyable opening, one dominated by Clooney’s warmth and humor as he prepares to say goodbye to orbit, but things suddenly go south, as an
exploding satellite causes a tidal wave of debris that decimates both the Hubble telescope, which the two are working on, and their space shuttle. And from
then on out, the film is about their battle for survival as they scramble to make it back to Earth alive (which might disappoint those expecting something
more existential along the lines of “2001: A Space Odyssey”). “Gravity” is very much an action adventure film, one very occasionally more meditative than
most, but it’s unashamed in its desire to thrill you.
And thrill you it certainly does. It’s visceral, knuckle-chewingly tense stuff, with Cuarón and his co-writer and son Jonás expertly packing obstacle packed on
top of obstacle in the way of the astronauts’ return home, without losing touch of humanity or humor. The camera floats as weightlessly as its subjects,
but the shots (often extended, but always in a way that favors storytelling above showboating) are always clear, and more often than not composed with
meaning and artistry, courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki. And with the director being careful to ensure the void of space
doesn’t carry any noise, the excellent score by Steven Price (“Attack The Block,” “The World’s End”)
helps to keep things both breathless and beautiful.
The film comes as close as most of us are likely to get to actually being in space (undoubtedly aided by the 3D: this is one film that’s really worth
paying the extra bucks for to see in the format, whether the lens is capturing a tiny spinning speck in the distance or debris flying in your face). But it
shouldn’t be dismissed as a mere rollercoaster ride—even if your instinct, as at a theme park, is to finish the experience and line up again for another go. When all’s said and done, the action is in service of character, and more specifically, Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone.
The character is less of a presence early on—she’s withdrawn and panicky, and mostly following Clooney’s lead. But Bullock moves to the forefront as the
film goes on, as a tragedy in her personal life is gradually revealed. Her arc brushes against sentimentality sometimes as it doesn’t say anything
particularly revelatory and risks coming across as somewhat like a self-help book—the character is more sketched rather than drawn. But Cuarón just about keeps things restrained, helped in a big way by Bullock, who through action rather than words, is steely, vulnerable, occasionally funny and
about the best she’s ever been in a dramatic role. Clooney’s just as good—his effervescence drives the early sections, but he brings home the pathos too
with his part-paternal, part-flirty chemistry with Bullock.
They deserve all the credit in the world, but there’s no doubt from the first few frames that the film is anyone but Cuarón’s. With “Children Of Men” still more of a cult favorite means that he perhaps doesn’t have the reputation among wider audiences that he deserves, but that’s likely to change here. The film’s
technically perfect, of course, from the terrific sound design to the impeccable effects (the exact extent of the CGI is difficult to say, because pretty
much everything looks photo-realistic, even when things head indoors). But it’s also cleverly written, and more than anything, phenomenally directed, from
the way that he uses every available surface to tell his story (someone’s going to write a book one day on the use of reflections in this film) to the
way he and Lubezki shift the light to vary the color palette, preventing it from becoming repetitive. Almost every decision is inspired.
Almost every one. There’s one nod to “2001” at one point that’s so overt enough that it threatens to break the reality of the world that Cuaron Cuarón’s set up. And
the very final music cue is so overbearing that we nearly dropped the film down a grade. But ultimately, these are minor quibbles. “Gravity” is about as
visceral an experience as you can have in a cinema, it’s a technical marvel, and it’s a blockbuster with heart and soul in spades. It’s about the best opening to a film festival that you could ask for. [A]
More “Gravity” buzz and more reviews on page 2. It seems like critics agree with Oli.
Variety: “The script modulates the tension expertly, deftly preying on the claustrophobic and the agoraphobic alike, and maintaining an unflagging sense of peril as it carefully throws Stone (Bullock) one lifeline after another.”
HitFix: “Alfonso Cuarón’s astonishing new film nonetheless goes to great, gruelling and frequently gasp-inducing pains to illustrate that “life in space is impossible.” Demands compellingly to be made and seen in 3D. For sheer transference of experience upon the audience, I can think of no film quite like it.”
Film4: “Gravity pulls off the creative miracle of being at once spectacular and thoughtful, and by turns terrifying and pensive”.
Screen Daily: “Almost balletic, spiraling, scenes as space craft are torn apart and mere humans in delicate space suits are thrown into the void with moments of quiet beauty as they the two intrepid astronauts relish the beautiful vistas and deadly beauty they find themselves amongst. This is very much Sandra Bullock’s film.”
THR: “At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space.
An elegant film that will have buffs and casual fans alike gaping and wondering, “How did they do that?” “
The Telegraph: “Bullock is the undoubted star and is seriously good here, giving Stone an inner steeliness that only the very deepest pangs of despair can unsheathe. Comparisons to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi are inevitable and well-earned.”
Empire: “Now that the embargo is up, I can say that what Jaws did for water, Gravity does for air. What surprised me was how much of an action flick Gravity is. Non-stop, no-nonsense. It’s Speed in space. Hugely entertaining.”
The Guardian: “Gravity provides an assured curtain-raiser. It comes blowing in from the ether like some weightless black nightmare, Clooney and Bullock give dogged, decent performances here, but they are inevitably shouting to be heard; utterly at the mercy of forces beyond their control.”
The Independent: “A visual triumph even if its storytelling is less than sure-footed. The one problem with Gravity is that the plotting never quite matches its visual imagination. Even so, this is a film that, at its best, really does induce a sense of wonder.”
The Times UK: “a seat-chewingly tense, virtuoso 90 minutes of cinema. Bullock and Clooney terrific. A tad heavy on sentimentality.”