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The Venice film festival lands on its feet with a brilliant opening night thriller which sees Sandra Bullock and George Clooney flailing in space and director Alfonso Cuarón masterfully steering the ship Spare a thought for the hapless delegates on day one of the Venice film festival. They're scanning the schedule, colliding on the stairwell and clearly struggling to find their feet and get their bearings. The opening movie offers no comfort at all. When the lights go down inside the cinema, the viewers are pitched, without further ado, clean out to the cosmos. All at once their nearest neighbour in the adjoining seat might as well be a thousand miles away.

Gravity, by the Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is a brilliantly tense and involving account of two stricken astronauts; a howl in the wilderness that sucks the breath from your lungs. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney star as Stone and Kowalsky, the skittish newcomer and the wily old pro, who find themselves battered by the drifting debris from a Russian satellite. Their shuttle is holed and useless, its interior full of floating corpses, and Houston steadfastly refuses to copy. Stone and Kowalsky's only hope is make their way across the void to the international space station and possible salvation. But they're lost in the desert, wafting in orbit; each spinning and turning as they grope despairingly for the hand of a friend.

It could be claimed that Cuarón has thrown a similar lifeline to the Venice film festival, which last year got off to a stuttering start courtesy of Mira Nair's well-meaning yet half-baked The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Gravity provides an altogether more assured curtain-raiser. It comes blowing in from the ether like some weightless black nightmare, hanging planet Earth at crazy angles behind the action. Like Tarkovsky's Solaris (later remade by Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh), the film thrums with an ongoing existential dread. And yet, tellingly, Cuaron's film contains a top-note of compassion that strays at times towards outright sentimentality. Stone, we learn, is haunted by the death of her infant daughter. She has scant seconds to decide whether she wants to live or die.

Maybe it's fitting that a film about two lonely figures adrift in outer-space should itself be dominated by the cosmos. Clooney and Bullock give dogged, decent performances here, but they are inevitably shouting to be heard; utterly at the mercy of forces beyond their control. Cuaron takes the two stars and stitches them against a vast canvas of roaring sound design and terrifying 3D visuals. Ruined satellites pitch and yaw. Shrapnel zips through the darkness like shoals of silver fish. As the screening wraps up, the delegates are politely instructed to return their spectacles to an usher and not leave them on the seat. Gravity, after all, offers a stark warning of the dangers of debris, clutter and human waste. With a little good fortune, even the 3D glasses will eventually find their way back home.

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