One of the most celebrated Hollywood one-liners has Bette Davis say to Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager "don't let's ask for the moon, we've got the stars". Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón's technically breathtaking Gravity is, in some perverse way, the perfect realisation of that legendary dialogue. It's got two bona fide film stars in its lead, or rather, in its only on-screen roles, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and is set among the stars, placing them adrift in space in Earth orbit after an unexpected wave of debris destroys their shuttle. In many ways - and surprising ones, since you don't exactly identify science-fiction with that genre - Gravity is the ultimate woman's picture, as it all hinges around Ms. Bullock. She plays Ryan Stone, a neophyte astronaut in her maiden voyage, with a tragic backstory and a general uneasiness about being in space.

     Her survival and comeback from the mother of all freak accidents, even if supported by the calming presence of veteran astronaut and surviving mission commander Matt Kowalski (Mr. Clooney in an effectively supporting turn), represents the ultimate feat of strength for a woman burned by life, who must, quite literally, rise again from the ashes and stand up on her own two feet. That melodramatic plot of the woman fighting against all odds is probably Mr. Cuarón's trade-off for being left alone to do Gravity his way: as a majestic, intelligent, visually dazzling 3D thrill ride that shows just how galvanizing the format can be when handled by someone who knows what he wants to do.

     It's hardly the stuff major studios dream of: only two actors on screen for all of the film's length, long stretches without any dialogue, and a production requiring technology and visual effects to work its magic. But Mr. Cuarón makes it work almost effortlessly, delivering what may be the most unlikely big-budget blockbuster in a long time. Working in long takes that are masterpieces of digital compositing, seamlessly melding actual live action footage with picture-perfect photo-realistic digital trickery, Mr. Cuarón follows here on the footsteps of James Cameron's Avatar. He uses the technology not as an end in itself, but as a tool to tell his story to the best possible effect, to create the universe that will support it and render it plausible. And, boy, is it quite an effect: Gravity's visuals are almost Kubrickian in their precision detailing and dazzling grandeur, breathtaking yet terrifying, but always subject to the restrained performances that sell the film's premise of loneliness and resourcefulness perfectly.

     For all that, there's a sense that the layering of personal backstory that makes Gravity an easier sell to the common-man audience may also be surplus to requirement, preventing the film from reaching the heights that seem to be in store for it. It's a virtuoso piece of visual filmmaking that stops short of perfection: like not reaching for the moon when you have the stars.

Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Screenwriters: Mr. Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki  (colour, widescreen, 3D)
Music: Steven Price
Designer: Andy Nicholson
Costumes: Jany Temime
Editors: Mr. Cuarón, Mark Sanger
Visual effects: Tim Webber
Producers: Mr. Cuarón, David Heyman  (Warner Bros. Pictures, Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films)
USA, 2013, 91 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo IMAX, Lisbon, October 3rd 2013

Winner of seven 2013 Academy Awards (Best Director; Best Cinematography; Best Original Music Score; Best Film Editing; Best Visual Effects; Best Sound Editing; Best Sound Mixing)
Nominated for three other Academy Awards (Best Picture; Best Actress - Sandra Bullock; Best Art Direction)


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