Dir: Alfonso Cuaron. US. 2013. 91mins


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.

Technically Gravity is a great success, and Cuaron pulls off all sorts of camera moves and beautifully orchestrated effects sequences that will leave audiences breathless.

The film has been much anticipated since the release of its trailer, which essentially sets 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.

Gravity sees Cuaron re-teamed with impressive cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (who worked with him on Children Of Men); costume designer Jany Temime (who worked on the Harry Potter films), and Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor Tim Webber (Children Of Men and The Dark Knight). And while it might be easy to dismiss aspects of the film as special effects heavy – how could they not be, given it is set in space – it is to Clooney and Bullock’s credit that they breathe real life into characters who could well be subsumed by the technology, jargon, space suits and danger that surrounds them.

Bullock plays Dr Ryan Stone, a straight-laced and brilliant medical engineer on her first shuttle mission, in the safe hands of genial and avuncular veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney). But when they are out of the Challenger – he on a space walk and she attempting to fix technology on a new telescope – disaster strikes.

It seems the Russians have launched a missile to destroy one of their old satellites, but accidentally the act sees a spread of debris heading towards the American shuttle.

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.

The film is littered with spectacular visual moments as Alfonso Cuaron (working from a script written by himself and son Jonas) mixes almost balletic, spiraling, scenes as space crafts 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.

Whether it be Sandra Bullock curled in a fetal position having fought her way into a space craft and divesting herself of her clunky space suit and relishing a moment of brief calm, or the look of joy on Clooney’s face as he stares down at Earth while amusing mission control with yet another rambling story, it is that balance between the human and the scientific that keeps the film grounded and always exciting. In fact the film is littered with references to birth (or re-birth) as a subtext - from Bullock’s fetal pose, through to her passing through the womb like space ship corridors and emerging to the cold of space, only to have to be responsible for cutting her own cords (physical and metaphorical) to finally move on with her life.

There are a few lapses into sentimentality as Bullock’s character talks about her past, plus there are few rather obvious moments (one involving a fire extinguisher), but these are sort of to be expected.  Gravity would be impossible to sustain if it was simply about peril and space debris. As Kowalsky quips early on, “Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission”, and with good reason.

Clooney’s trademark effortless charm works nicely with his Kowalski. A genial seen-it-all, done-it-all personality, he is the opposite of Bullock’s Stone, a newbie who has shown no great skill in her simulator sessions, but has real technical knowhow. He is there to help her, calm her and offer her the confidence to try and survive.

The post-production 3-D looks terrific and does give the film a real immersive quality that it benefits from. Technically Gravity is a great success, and Cuaron pulls off all sorts of camera moves and beautifully orchestrated effects sequences that will leave audiences breathless.

Production companies: Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films

Distribution: Warner Bros

Producers: Alfonso Cuaron, David Heyman

Executive producers: Nikki Penny, Chris deFaria, Stephen Jones

Screenplay: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Editors: Alfonso Cuaron, Mark Sanger

Production designer: Andy Nicholson

Music: Steven Price

Main cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney