This year's …
But that's an out-and-out fantasy; Duncan Jones' Moon from 2009 shares a little of Gravity's painstaking sense of realism, but got no Oscar nods. Nor did Clooney's last space-suit film, Solaris; but that's arguably the most similar with its hi-tech variant of existential dread.
What's it all about?
In what is basically a two-hander, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play two US astronauts stranded in space after their ship is crippled by high-orbiting debris. Like the chunky fisherman in The Deep, the pair must attempt to survive in implacably hostile conditions. Director Alfonso Cuarón (of Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men renown) has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure it all looks grindingly authentic.
How did it happen?
Co-written by Cuarón and his son Jonás, Gravity was originally going to be a vehicle for Angelina Jolie, until she dropped out to make her directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey. Meanwhile, Cuarón and his crew spent many headscratching months attempting to perfect natural-looking lighting and convincing zero-grav floating, building a giant cube to house the actors and using complex animated sequences to programme camera moves. Lots of actors came and went before Bullock and Clooney stuck.
Nominations it wants
Despite her and Clooney's apparently equal billing, Bullock is most definitely the lead; she ought to be a shoo-in for a best actress nom, especially as she spends much of the movie completely on her own. I say "ought"; who knows whether the Academy's nose-in-the-air when it comes to sci-fi will deny Cuarón a best director and screenplay shot (he definitely deserves the first). There'll be no arguments if it gets nominated in every technical category; it's a tour de force.
What it might win
Cuarón, a favoured arthouse director, could be the key to lifting Gravity above the usual effects-nods-but-no-statuettes syndrome that tends to afflict genre pics. Up against a Cate Blanchett, Bullock might struggle to actually carry off the award, but Cuarón ought to be a match for anyone. And with five nominations (including two for Terrence Malick films) but no wins, it would be a near-scandal if cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki went home empty-handed.
Reasons to fall for it
There's something special going on here: real envelope-pushing visuals in a film that also manages to be a proper thriller. And Bullock is so brilliantly cast against type that it's like Cuarón has discovered a brand new actor.
Reasons it might fail
For all its stylistic fireworks, it pitches a tad shamelessly for the big emotional moments; this is, after all, a big-money Hollywood film, and needs to make itself unquestionably accessible. On the other hand, Oscar doesn't necessarily shy away from obviousness; it depends whether it's seen as too obvious.
When can we see it?
It's just opened the Venice film festival, an excellent platform to generate some major awards heat, and will shortly zip over to Toronto. It's getting a nice fat early October release in the US and Australia, and a leisurely global rollout in the following weeks, fetching up in the UK a month later. Ideal for an Oscar campaign, should momentum materialise.
In four words
Cuarón wins space race.
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