VENICE — Hollywood high-rollers George Clooney and Sandra Bullock kicked off the Venice film festival on Wednesday with a harrowing space drama that opens a line-up flush with gloomy tales.
“Gravity”, a 3-D sci-fi thriller, sees Clooney and Bullock as astronauts who are flung into dark, deep space when a debris shower destroys their shuttle.
The stars were expected on the red carpet for the opening ceremony of the world’s oldest film festival, followed by an exclusive after-dinner party.
Directed by Mexico’s Alfonso Cuaron of “Children of Men” fame, the film induces anxiety, with terrifying shots from inside the astronauts’ helmets as they spin wildly and lose all radio contact with Earth.
Cuaron has said he invented new filmmaking techniques to depict spacewalking — including shooting inside a giant cube to evoke constantly shifting light sources — and after months of delay and a huge budget, “Gravity” delivers a Hollywood punch.
Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission who relies on veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (Clooney) to hold on to her sanity and try to survive despite her rapidly dropping oxygen levels.
A soundtrack dominated by her racing heartbeat and the deafening silence of space is punctuated by jokes cracked by Kowalsky: “Half of North America just lost its Facebook”, he quips as debris takes out communication satellites.
While director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki produces stunning images which leave spectators gasping for air, the humor sometimes detracts from key scenes and the characters lack real depth.
Other keenly awaited premieres include “Parkland,” Peter Landesman’s re-creation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and David Gordon Green’s brutal “Joe” with Nicholas Cage as a violent ex-con who teams up with a homeless teen.
“This festival draws its strength from the risks it takes,” this year’s jury president, Oscar-winning Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci, said at a canalside cocktail party on the eve of the opening.
Gondoliers could be seen shipping silver screen stars to Venice’s Lido island where the 70th edition of the festival will run to September 7, accompanied by a plethora of luxury yacht parties and beach soirees.
Paparazzi were doused in sea spray as speed boats whipped past the shore of the Lido and starlets lounged in the Italian sun.
Scarlett Johansson, Nicholas Cage, Matt Damon and Zac Efron are just some of the stars expected on the red carpet this edition, along with South Korea’s Kim Ki-duk, whose grim morality tale “Pieta” won the Golden Lion prize last year.
Twenty films are up for the Lion this year.
The jury is headed up by Bertolucci, best known for his raunchy 1972 “Last Tango in Paris”, and includes British director Andrea Arnold (“Red Road”) and German actress Martina Gedeck (“The Lives of Others”).
British and American flicks dominate, with the return of the family as the vessel for social, political and economic crisis, from child abuse and abductions to absent fathers and marriage breakdowns.
The total 53 films screening reflect a “dark and violent reality” with filmmakers “not giving any signs of optimism,” festival director Alberto Barbera said.
Among the most harrowing will be James Franco’s “Child of God,” an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel about a cave dweller who rejects the social order and ends up slaughtering women to have sex with their corpses.
The squeamish will also be tested by Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” in which Johansson stars as an alien who hunts down and devours unwitting hikers.
Monty Python star Terry Gilliam’s drama “The Zero Theorem” is unlikely to lift the mood, with its bleak tale of solitude and madness centered around a race to decode a mathematical formula to discover whether life has any meaning.