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Venice Review: Alfonso Cuarón's 'Gravity' Starring Sandra Bullock & George Clooney

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 28, 2013 6:22 AM
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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]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Venice Film Festival to date by clicking here.

More "Gravity" buzz and more reviews on page 2. It seems like critics agree with Oli. 

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  • Nimsy Numpty | March 2, 2014 11:26 PMReply

    Obviously none of you ever saw Sunshine or Pandorum. I mainly READ science fiction books but enjoy the few worthwhile sci fi flicks. Gravity made me cringe but not because I was worried weather Dr. Stone would make it back to earth. I felt no empathy for Dr. Stone her daughter who fell in the playground and died. Clooney's character was bearable. The film bored me to death maybe if I saw it in the theater it would of been okay. Yeah its sci fi not science fact but damn was this film way off. Go see Sunshine that movie soundtrack trumps Gravity

  • Joao Luis | October 15, 2013 4:28 PMReply

    Loved the movie for all its marvels and eerie atmosphere.
    There was just one thing that bogged my mind: with so much space 600 km above Earth how is it that The Hubble telescope, The International Space Station AND The Chinese Space Station were a mere stone's throw away from each other? If that were to ever happen it would be very dangerous indeed, having no brakes and all.

  • FehtaCheese | October 13, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    I must have seen a different movie. It's beautifully composed and filmed and designed, and that's it. It's soulless. Bullock's character is barely realized, and she's in every minute of the movie. She pants, she yelps, she gasps and she squeals in terror, and that, folks, is the film.

  • Kate | October 18, 2013 8:21 PM

    Yes, I think you must have seen an entirely different film to not believe there's any soul in it.

  • theghostofbellestarr | October 3, 2013 5:21 PMReply

    Jervaise, every geezer in the world wants to bugger the 18 year-old version of Sandra Bullock, THATS A GIVEN ! ! !.

  • the sneering (homo-phobic) snob | October 3, 2013 5:18 PMReply

    I`ve always respected George Clooneys rampaging heterosexuality (obviously) but in every other way that geezer is a bloody load of old rubbish.

  • jervaise brooke hamster | October 3, 2013 5:14 PMReply

    I want to bugger Sandra Bullock (as the bird was in 1982 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).

  • TheGhostofBelleStarr | October 3, 2013 1:40 AMReply

    I'll have to pass on this one since I refuse to support any"work" of George Clooney who being a multimillionaire supports the Socialist/Marxist agenda of Obama. Serfdom for you and me is A OK in Clooney's book while he and the rest of Hollywood rich and elite are far removed from it.

  • FehtaCheese | October 13, 2013 5:10 PM

    Your stupidity is only exceeded by your self-importance. Nobody cares what you do or why you do it. There is no Socialist/Marxist agenda. Nobody wants you to be a serf. You're so stupid, your poor parents must weep and drink all night long.

  • Sammy | September 18, 2013 5:55 PMReply

    "And the very final music cue is so overbearing that we nearly dropped the film down a grade."

    First of all, who is "we"? and second, always go with your first impulse. That's the grade I'll assume that it deserves.

  • Jimski | September 21, 2013 7:32 AM

    Just be glad "they" didn't drop the film down a grade. Think about how horrible that would have been.

  • Boone | September 17, 2013 5:45 AMReply

    "...It’s about the best opening to a film festival that you could ask for."

    Dude, man y'know, your grammatical errors in that last sentence, man, I can't even deal. It's like you're harshin my vibe here, man, cause when people say community colleges don't work, like usually I stand up for them, man. So like thanks for deconstructing my constant, man. Thanks alot.

  • M | October 10, 2013 11:32 AM

    You are so fcking annoying

  • Manolo | September 8, 2013 3:47 AMReply

    Mexican creativity is on fire!! :)

  • A_A | August 28, 2013 4:57 PMReply

    Hope Lubezki gets the Oscar

  • a | August 28, 2013 4:54 PMReply

    I'm definitely going to take a couple of valiums before seeing this. My anxiety can barely handle the trailer as it is.

  • bohmer | August 28, 2013 1:15 PMReply

    glad you liked it!

  • JJ | August 28, 2013 10:59 AMReply

    Can't wait for this thing. Children of Men is one of the best films I've ever seen.

  • yer | August 28, 2013 10:50 AMReply

    I knew this was a positive review when I saw it only had 3 comments. You slather praise on a film for the better part of a year and nobody bats an eye, but you get critical and everyone loses their minds!

  • Jeremy | August 28, 2013 1:56 PM

    Damn...that quote, still can't believe Ledger left us so early. He would have been working with all the greats right now.

  • Avi Bomba | August 28, 2013 10:02 AMReply

    Go Alfonso Quaron! Hopefully the Academy voters give him the proper respect in the Best Director nomination list this year.
    And WOW at Sandra Bullock turning into an Oscar critic darling!!

  • Adam Scott Thompson | August 28, 2013 9:58 AMReply

    High for it!

  • droop | August 28, 2013 9:10 AMReply

    Fuck, even more excited about this now. So siiiiiick.

  • gsdsdf | August 29, 2013 7:46 PM

    sick indeed :)

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