George Clooney and Sandra Bullock play two astronauts battling to survive, after their shuttle is destroyed by debris.

An intimate blockbuster.

VENICE FILM FESTIVAL: Breathtaking in technique, if perhaps a little less immaculate in terms of its human element, Alfonso Cuarón’s first feature since 2006’s great Children of Men is the finest sci-fi film in more than a decade: not only a virtuosic display of digital filmmaking, but also a kind of intimate blockbuster—one that manages, against considerable odds, to match its formidable style to its subject-matter.

the finest sci-fi film in more than a decade

That style, at least, is to be expected. Cuarón is nothing if not a consummate craftsman, and every one of his features to date, from his wildly inventive feature debut, 1992’s Love in the Time of Hysteria, to mainstream forays like A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (the outstanding instalment in that series), has boasted the kind of refined surface to which most of his peers can only aspire. But each of them has also pushed, either quietly or overtly, at the limits of their perceived status—as a small, foreign-language comedy, as a 'prestige’ kiddie flick, as a high-profile franchise entry—to achieve something elegant, singular and compelling.

We open 600 kilometres above the Earth’s surface. A team of astronauts are undertaking a spacewalk to conduct repairs upon the Hubble telescope. One is the mission’s laconic commander, Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a smooth-talking gent who, truth be told, sounds an awful lot like the actor himself; the other is a scientist, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), coolly businesslike. A third astronaut—Shariff—is glimpsed off in the distance.

Their task is a routine one, and the tone is appropriately light. Kowalsky—a veteran pilot, set to retire after this mission—drifts like a lazy wasp around the satellite’s superstructure, even as he regales Mission Control with well-worn anecdotes from his past. He also expresses his disappointment at being denied one last chance to break the existing spacewalk record—a rather clumsy piece of narrative foreshadowing that in fact merely foreshadows more clumsiness to come. (Suffice it to say that dialogue—by the director and his son Jonás—is not exactly this film’s most special effect.) Stone, meanwhile, a relative newcomer to orbit, is simply trying to complete her task without vomiting.

But then, in the space of an instant, matters turn nightmarish: Houston (voiced, in a sly act of homage, by Apollo 13’s Ed Harris) interrupts their frequency to report that the Russians have just shot down one of their satellites—the reason is unclear, though it might have been a spy platform—and that debris from that impact has subsequently taken out a number of other orbiting telecommunications platforms, an actual scientific hypothesis known as the Kessler Effect. Contact is quickly lost with Earth—but not before a final piece of bad news is transmitted: said wreckage is heading directly for the astronauts and their ship, at incredible speed.

What happens next ranks as one of the most spectacular, and terrifying, sequences in modern cinema, all the more so for occurring in complete silence. (Cuarón is admirably rigorous about his physics.) Suffice it to say that the third astronaut is killed at once, while Kowalsky and Stone are left stranded in space, their craft destroyed. And Stone—panicking, on the verge of hyper-ventilating—has only a fraction of her oxygen supply left...

Most near-future-set science fiction aims for a kind of vague plausibility, a necessary suspension of the disbelief that would undermine the fantastic. This one goes far beyond that, to achieve actual verisimilitude. Unique among its kind, it feels, as you watch it, as if it might somehow have been shot on location. Its opening 15 minutes, in particular—conceived and executed in uninterrupted 360 degrees in every direction (terrestrial concepts such as Up or Down being meaningless in zero-G), with not so much as a visible edit in sight—is a set-piece of jaw-dropping virtuosity, rivalling in both its complexity and its sleight-of-hand elegance the notorious, uninterrupted car sequence from Children of Men.

But it’s also unbearably, almost sickeningly tense. Dialogue might not be their strong suit, but Cuarón pere et fils quickly and efficiently lay out their plot elements—a particular location, a certain number of characters and objects, a plausible catastrophe—then spend the remainder of the film complicating the issue, placing various obstacles in the path of their heroine. It’s a film about mass and vectors, about velocity and thrust and time. Actual phenomena. Which only makes its occasional lapses into Hollywood formula all the more regrettable.

A colleague here in Venice mentioned that the film apparently went through re-shoots after early test audiences found Bullock’s character too 'unsympathetic’. Hence, one must assume, the elaborate embroidery of Stone’s backstory; hence too, the windy speeches to which she becomes prone. These scenes are by far the film’s weakest, feeling blatant and clichéd, and as such, radically at odds with the rest of a movie which (one visual homage to 2001 notwithstanding) is nothing if not original, and ruthless in its efficiency.

Watching, I found myself wishing its makers had taken heart from a film this one closely resembles: JC Chandor’s recent (and, by comparison, resolutely earthbound) All Is Lost. Which dwelt similarly upon one lone protagonist’s fight for survival amid extreme conditions, but took care to hint at, rather than detail, a rich and complicated interior life. Wordless, concerned solely with physical phenomena, with its hero’s point-to-point struggle to ensure his own survival, that film understood that genuine, edge-of-the-seat tension renders all but the most basic psychology irrelevant. That, compared to the simple, immediate need to keep breathing, even the saddest of pasts is superfluous.

Even so, this is an immersive experience, an event-movie in the way most summer blockbusters try and fail to be. Credit, in this regard, must go to Cuarón’s collaborators—specifically, his longtime cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and visual effects designer Tim Webber. (Though less so, perhaps, to British musician Steven Price—whose contributions veer from moodily effective to wildly overblown: a final theme here sounds uncomfortably like an outtake from The Lion King.) The 3-D is pristine, and well-deployed: shooting on the Arri Alexa digital camera, images are captured with almost hallucinatory clarity. But whether viewed in two dimensions or three, one thing is certain: this film demands to be seen upon as big a screen as possible. The better to convey the immensity of space, the remoteness of Earth, our insignificance.