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Gravity Shocks and Awes at Venice Film Festival

September 5, 2013

Judging from the reviews coming out of Venice last week, the seven years in between Children of Men and Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film Gravity were well-spent. In a 180° turn away from the big budget, blockbuster, 3-D styling of other recent space films like Avatar and Star Trek, Cuarón has eschewed aliens, lasers and fight scenes in favor of a sparse, introspective approach to the genre. On the surface, Gravity sounds like a minimalist, almost clinical, cinematic exercise -- two faces, two bodies, two voices breathing heavily for one and half hours in the unforgiving vastness of space – but apparently it was enough to send critics back to their editors foaming at the mouth after its premiere at the 70th Venice Film Festival.

Rogerebert.com’s Tommaso Tocci said it was “By far the best Opening Film of the last decade in Venice.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy called it “At once the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space.” Whether this is hyperbole from an oxygen-starved press corp exhausted from the onslaught of wise-cracking superheroes or genuine praise for a cinematic achievement, we won’t know for sure until the official release date on October 4th, but the collective response has been overwhelmingly positive.

Cuarón has delivered the goods before. His original screenplay for Y Tu Mamá También was nominated for an Academy Award and Children of Men garnered nominations for Best Screenplay and Editing. Both films also won prizes at Venice. No stranger to special effects wizardry, Cuarón’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban featured Harry and Hermione traveling back in time and avoiding their past selves in a cleverly shot roundabout sequence. That film was also nominated for an Academy Award for Visual Effects. Christopher Rosen at the Huffington Post quipped “Regardless of what happens between now and next year…at least Cuarón might want to get his tuxedo dry-cleaned.”

Based on the Venice post-mortem, this is what we know. The rumored 18-minute-long opening shot actually comes in at around 13 minutes of George Clooney and Sandra Bullock floating through space as debris from a damaged satellite wreaks havoc on their shuttle. Bullock is jettisoned off the structure where her panicked shrieks grow fainter as the tiny white sprawling form of her space suit disappears into the void. The final radio transmissions from the Kennedy Space Center reports that meteorological conditions would prevent retrieval of the astronauts leaving Clooney to guide his astronaut propulsion unit through the dark night, first to find Bullock, then to reach the international space station. On the way they are confronted by the horror of evisceration by space junk as well as Bullock’s own frightened death wish as a result of the loss of a family member.

This last humanizing touch is the one most hotly contested by critics as being too sentimental but it gives Cuarón and his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki an emotional hook to hang their dramatic changes in style from the macro view of the cosmos to the dread, anxiety and despair of inner space. Rapidly depleting oxygen stores, naked fear and tender, black comedy propel formidable performances by both actors as they hurl toward oblivion.

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