Friday, August 30, 2013


The long-awaited project opens the Venice Film Festival today seven years after the premiere of Cuaron’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 Cuaron and his co-writer and son Jonas 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.

About halfway through Alfonso Cuaron’s astonishing “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock, playing a lost astronaut stranded 375 miles above Earth, seeks refuge in an abandoned spacecraft and curls into a floating fetal position, savoring a brief respite from her harrowing journey. Of the many sights to behold in this white-knuckle space odyssey, a work of great narrative simplicity and visual complexity, it’s this image that speaks most eloquently to Cuaron’s gifts as a filmmaker: He’s the rare virtuoso capable of steering us through vividly imagined worlds and into deep recesses of human feeling. Suspending viewers alongside Bullock for a taut, transporting 91 minutes (with George Clooney in a sly supporting turn), the director’s long-overdue follow-up to “Children of Men” is at once a nervy experiment in blockbuster minimalism and a film of robust movie-movie thrills, restoring a sense of wonder, terror and possibility to the bigscreen that should inspire awe among critics and audiences worldwide.

As scripted by Cuaron and his son Jonas, this tale of one woman’s expedition into the unknown is a nerve-shredding suspenser, a daring study in extreme isolation, and one of the most sophisticated and enveloping visions of space travel yet realized onscreen. It falls among that increasingly rare breed of popular entertainments capable of prompting genuine “How did they do that?” reactions from even the most jaded viewers, even as its central premise is so simple and immediately gripping that one might just as readily ask, “Why didn’t anyone do it sooner?”

The answer to both questions is that Cuaron, in another remarkable collaboration with longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (“Children of Men”), has pushed the relevant technologies to their limits in order to tell this story with the sort of impeccable verisimilitude and spellbinding visual clarity it requires. The long, intricate tracking shots the three devised for the earlier film were a mere warm-up act for what they unleash here, as is clear from the stunningly choreographed opening sequence — an unbroken, roughly 13-minute long take that plunges us immediately into the deafening silence of space. Specifically, we are in the atmospheric layer known as the thermosphere, the Earth’s massive form looming large in the widescreen frame as an orbiting shuttle gradually cruises into focus.

“Gravity” opens, in coy denial of the mammoth imagery soon to follow, with modest white letters on a black screen, spelling out facts about outer space that sound more than a little like threats. “Life in space is impossible,” the titles conclude, after warning us off with daunting details of distance, physics and unimaginable cold. It’s a simple and – at least from a terrestrial perspective – pretty inarguable thesis that Alfonso Cuarón’s astonishing new film nonetheless goes to great, gruelling and frequently gasp-inducing pains to illustrate, before opening up less certain possibilities with a sudden surge in its own emotional temperature. Life in space is a no-go, sure. But what about life after?

It’s been seven long years since Cuarón, the serenely versatile Mexican stylist capable of finding grace notes in raunchy south-of-the-border road trips and Harry Potter alike, last visited our screens with a chilling fantasy that now sits as an unwittingly perfect bookend to his latest: in “Children of Men,” life scarcely seems possible on Earth.

Both films are visions of otherworldly worlds that look and sound nothing like their many previous cinematic realisations: industrial dystopia has never seemed less future-chic and more irreversibly barren than in “Men,” and space has never seemed bigger, more unknown, more outer than it does in “Gravity.” Both films navigate their unchartered territories with a hopefulness that could only be described paradoxically as despairing: for Sandra Bullock’s numbly bereaved medical engineer Ryan, as for the freakish newborn who emerges at the close of “Men,” survival is a short-term instinct with few known long-term rewards.

A genuinely tense and exciting lost-in-space thriller, Alfonso Cuaron’s exhilarating and often spectacular 3-D film is a real pleasure, driven by top-notch lead performances from Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as well as some seriously cool special effects. Despite some lapses into sentimentality, Gravity sustains its simple concept and turns out to be a real audience pleaser as well as a shrewd choice for opening night film for the Venice Film Festival, where it has its premiere.

The film has been much anticipated since release of its trailer, which essentially set up the opening scenes and prompted much heated debate as to where the story would head. There will be little disappointment from audiences who are likely to be thrilled by the well sustained edge-of-the-seat thrills as this space-bound film follows the well-worn disaster movie format and keeps things tense right up until the final scenes. While the performances are spot on, the real stars of the film are Cuaron’s smart direction and the spectacular special effects, which should come under attention during awards season.

With their shuttle destroyed and the rest of the crew killed, Stone and Kowalsky are left alone in space, tethered to each other but with their limited oxygen supply draining away and with their only option to try and make their way across space to see if Russian and Chinese space stations may offer a vague chance of escape. But always in the knowledge that the deadly debris will be heading their way again in 90 minutes.

Without giving too much of the plot away – rest assured there are plenty of twists and turns – this is very much Sandra Bullock’s film. Much has been made of Angelina Jolie turning the role down, and it only coming Bullock’s way after Nathalie Portman’s pregnancy, but Bullock’s combination of intelligence and straight-forward charm works perfectly here, plus she convinces in the physicality of the role, whether it be flying through space or fighting fires inside a space craft.

At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space, Gravity is a thrillingly realized survival story spiked with interludes of breath-catching tension and startling surprise. Not at all a science fiction film in the conventional sense, Alfonso Cuaron's first feature in seven years has no aliens, space ship battles or dystopian societies, just the intimate spectacle of a man and a woman trying to cope in the most hostile possible environment across a very tight 90 minutes. World premiered at the Venice Film Festival, with Telluride showings following quickly on its heels, this Warner Bros. release is smart but not arty, dramatically straightforward but so dazzlingly told as to make it a benchmark in its field. Graced by exemplary 3D work and bound to look great in Imax, the film seems set to soar commercially around the world.

“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” George Clooney's veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky half-jokes at the outset from his perch in orbit around Earth, which looms massively beneath. It's a sentiment few viewers will agree with once their jaws begin dropping at Cuaron's astonishing 13-minute opening shot, which gyrates and swoops and loops and turns in concert with the movements of the space shuttle and those of Matt, who jets around untethered while mission scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) tries to fix a technical problem outside the ship. It's as if Max Ophuls were let loose in outer space, so elegant is the visual continuity, making for a film that will have buffs and casual fans alike gaping and wondering, “How did they do that?” and returning for multiple viewings just to imbibe the sheer virtuosity of it all.

“Life in space is impossible.” Those five words appear on screen at the beginning of Gravity, the new film by Alfonso Cuarón, along with a summary of the salient facts: 600 kilometres above Earth’s surface, there is no oxygen, no water and no atmosphere through which sound can travel.

Your mind flits back to that phrase throughout Cuarón’s film, a science-fiction thriller of rare and diamond-hard brilliance, in which two astronauts come perilously unstuck from their moorings. But by the end, you realise you have mentally sketched in two commas to make sense of the film’s deep-down, soul-fattening theme. Yes: life, in space, is impossible. But mankind was not built for solitude, and in a wide, empty universe, the yearning for human-to-human contact is a force as powerful and inescapable as the one that keeps our feet bound to the planet.

The humans at the heart of Cuarón’s film, which screens this evening as the Venice Film Festival’s opening night gala, are Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), two American space-walkers on a mission to repair the Hubble Telescope.

Before disaster strikes, we discover a few key details. Stone is a medical engineer who has recently lost her young daughter, and for her, the all-pervasive silence of space comes as a comfort blanket. Kowalsky, the pilot, is also suffering as a result of separation: during an earlier mission, his wife absconded with another man.

Spare a thought for the hapless delegates on day one of the Venice film festival. They're scanning the schedule, colliding on the stairwell and clearly struggling to find their feet and get their bearings. The opening movie offers no comfort at all. When the lights go down inside the cinema, the viewers are pitched, without further ado, clean out to the cosmos. All at once their nearest neighbour in the adjoining seat might as well be a thousand miles away.

Gravity, by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is a brilliantly tense and involving account of two stricken astronauts; a howl in the wilderness that sucks the breath from your lungs. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as Stone and Kowalsky, the skittish newcomer and the wily old pro, who find themselves battered by the drifting debris from a Russian satellite. Their shuttle is holed and useless, its interior full of floating corpses, and Houston steadfastly refuses to copy. Stone and Kowalsky's only hope is make their way across the void to the international space station and possible salvation. But they're lost in the desert, wafting in orbit; each spinning and turning as they grope despairingly for the hand of a friend.

It could be claimed that Cuarón has thrown a similar lifeline to the Venice film festival, which last year got off to a stuttering start courtesy of Mira Nair's well-meaning yet half-baked The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Gravity provides an altogether more assured curtain-raiser. It comes blowing in from the ether like some weightless black nightmare, hanging planet Earth at crazy angles behind the action. Like Tarkovsky's Solaris (later remade by Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh), the film thrums with an ongoing existential dread. And yet, tellingly, Cuaron's film contains a top-note of compassion that strays at times towards outright sentimentality. Stone, we learn, is haunted by the death of her infant daughter. She has scant seconds to decide whether she wants to live or die.

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