Alfonso Cuarón was last in Venice with the impressive Children of Men, a tale set in a dystopian world with one man striving to save humanity. In Gravity, it is up to one man, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), to save crew member Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) after disaster strikes their space mission. Humanity lies below them, oblivious to the drama taking place miles above.
The story begins with the astronauts hard at work, or at least Dr Stone is busy keying in data whilst Kowalsky ambles around her, boring Houston with rehashed stories and repeating the line “I have a bad feeling about this mission”. This is to be his last trip and he is the equivalent of an old sea dog, comfortable in his surroundings and with a cool head on his shoulders. Stone, on the other hand, is on her first mission and we learn that Houston has concerns about her heart rate and health. When debris starts flying towards them, Stone is literally thrown into a spin, leaving Kowalsky to calm her down and rein her in. Thus the two stranded astronauts set off on a mission to get themselves home.
This is not the first time Clooney has visited outer space, having appeared in Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002). Yet his character in Gravity has more in common with his fishing boat captain in The Perfect Storm or the aged crew in Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (which opened the Venice Film Festival in 2000). This film may not be set on earth, but Kowalsky has his feet planted firmly on the ground. Clooney is perfect as this affable, self-deprecating and ultimately sincere man, a role he’s played in various guises in the past. Bullock also excels as the nervous and vulnerable scientist who is led towards independence and self confidence by her more experienced partner. Again, this is not entirely new territory for Bullock, who has often juggled fragility with feistiness in previous roles.
Cuarón, who directed, co-wrote and produced this film, aspired to be an astronaut as a child. Once the accident occurs, he maintains the breathtaking pace for much of the 91 minutes. One bum note is when Stone states “I’ve never prayed. Nobody taught me how”, yet this is a woman from the US mid-west who clearly believes in some sort of heaven. However, this is a minor quibble. There are some fun details as we visit space stations belonging to various nations: the Russians have a vodka stash, the US team have dental retainers and a Marvin the Martian toy, whilst the Chinese have brought along their table tennis bats. There is also a sense of shared faith: Stone talks of the after life, the Chinese have a Buddha on the dashboard and the Russians have an image of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers. Images crop up throughout the film that recall the human foetus and birth, and in a sense this is the story of Stone’s difficult labour and rebirth. This is a thrilling and moving rollercoaster of a movie that will appeal to space geeks and romantics alike.