Film4.com Deputy Editor Michael Leader reports on the Venice Film Festival’s opening film, Gravity…

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Sandra Bullock in Gravity

Greetings from Venice! The weather here is… well, it’s currently flip-flopping between stormy showers and baking heat, which in a way mirrors my own indecision when it comes to classifying the festival’s opening flick Gravity, Alfonso Cuaron’s first work since the dystopian parable Children Of Men. It may be set in low orbit, but Gravity – part action thriller, part character drama – has as much to do with science fiction as Jaws did with swimming, or Speed did with public transport.

It’s probably best to think of it as Al Reinert’s peerless Apollo doc For All Mankind spliced with a 90s high-stakes disaster movie. Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) are having one very bad day at the office – and their workplace happens to be the great vacuum of space. They’re a compelling pair – Kowalski the wisecracking veteran on course to break the world record for spacewalking, Stone the specialist scientist on her first mission – but as the catastrophe continues and each new misfortune befalls our heroes, Cuaron keeps a clear focus on their internal struggles as well as the ongoing conflict with the void. And just as the Apollo astronauts professed profound moments of self-realisation when looking back at the earth, Ryan and Kowalski must look inward in order to survive in this harshest of climates.

Gravity pulls off the creative miracle of being at once spectacular and thoughtful, and by turns terrifying and pensive. Cuaron deftly juxtaposes these moments of philosophy and white-knuckle tension, and in a similar way his razor-sharp edits cut between Michael Bay-sized explosive blasts and the endless, silent black of the characters’ surroundings. Space, here, is a grand canvas, both beautiful and dangerous, and there’s a feeling that you can get lost staring into Gravity’s depths, pulling apart its existential themes and finding meanings in little details in the set dressing (a Buddha statue here, a Marvin The Martian figurine there); but don’t lose sight of its most immediate qualities. This is, first and foremost, a tremendous rollercoaster of a movie, given renewed energy by Cuaron marshalling technique and technology to resolutely break free of the conventions of grounded cinema, letting the camera – and the viewer – float alongside our heroes among the stars.