In space, no one can hear you scream.
Or shout for help. Or cry.
That's certainly borne out in Gravity, the new film directed by Alfonso Cuarón, which opened the Venice film festival last night to glowing reviews and widespread admiration for its ultra-realistic depiction of a catastrophic accident in space.
Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two American astronauts stranded outside their spacecraft in high Earth orbit after it is wrecked by debris travelling at ferocious speed, Gravity is an $80m production that sought to portray conditions close to real life.
Cuarón told a press conference at Venice: "We tried to be as accurate as possible, without pretending it was a documentary, to give us a little freedom. We had advice from astronauts, people who had been in space, as well as experts on the engineering. But the most important were the experts in simple physics, whose job it was to try to explain to us how things act and react in space, which is entirely different."
"It's almost counter-intuitive for the actors; they had to absorb all this information and perform in a very abstract way. If you could see how we shot this film, you would be amazed at the results."
Bullock, who plays the role of a scientist on her first mission, was required to jettison the perky acting persona that saw her become one of Hollywood's biggest female stars in the 1990s, and contributed to her recent resurgence with films such as The Blind Side and recent comedy The Heat. She said she found the role physically demanding, explaining that she trained hard before the shoot as she had not "wanted not to fall apart" during production. Moreover, she said, it suited the character, a scientist whose young daughter had recently died. "People who experience loss transform in a physical way. I wanted to lose everything that was feminine and maternal. As I was training I saw my body change; I wanted to get it to where it was just a machine."
Gravity is one of the most anticipated titles to screen at Venice: it is Cuarón's first film since the acclaimed Children of Men in 2006, and it forced film-makers to devise radical and pioneering solutions to the complex technical challenges of filming characters floating freely in the cosmic void. Bullock says she spent long periods filming on her own, working for many weeks alone inside "a 9ft-by-9ft cube" with inbuilt programmable LED lights, and "a contraption that held you from the waist down" to enable the constant drifting and somersaulting demanded by the action.
The hardest part, she said, was to try and act in such a difficult environment. "You have to figure it out, whether you're hanging from a 20ft ceiling as people puppeteer you into a wall, or you're locked in a box. George and I rarely had time together, but if I could see a piece of him or hear his voice, I felt better. I was so grateful for any kind of human conflict, even hearing someone's breath."
Clooney, to some observers' surprise, had very much a subordinate role in Gravity; he explained his participation in the film by citing the quality of the screenplay, which was co-written by Cuarón and his 22-year-old son Jonás. "At least for the last 15 years, I have just looked for good scripts, and then see what I can do in them."
Clooney then joked: "With this, there were only two parts, and Sandy had the other one; so this was the only one I could get away with.
"Plus I didn't want to spin around in my underwear; it just didn't feel right."
Despite his lesser role in the film, Clooney still managed to attract his fair share of attention at the Gravity press conference. Not only was he asked to confirm the existence of his human-rights-abuse-spotting satellite over Sudan ("I'm not saying it's all that successful, but it's worth it"), and duck a question about US intervention in Syria ("I was hoping you'd ask me about Ben Affleck playing Batman, but no"), he was also ambushed by a wag among the assembled media contingent claiming to be from the BBC, who complimented him on his hair and suit, before asking him whether he felt "alone in space". The prankster was quickly rumbled, however, and forced to quieten down by the arrival of some heavy-looking official bruisers.
It has happened before to Clooney: a man stripped off in front of the actor during his 2009 Venice press conference. Clooney, it seems, has still got it.
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