Steve McQueen (director of 12 Years A Slave), with actor Michael Fassbender, yesterday in Telluride. Photo © Pamela Gentile

The best way I can think of to relate the experience of watching Gravity, the new film from Alfonso Cuarón, is to compare it to Kingda Ka, the massive steel thrill ride at Great Adventure in New Jersey that sends passengers 450 feet down at a speed of 128 mph. It lasts just 50 seconds.

Gravity, the dizzying new 3D space drama that last night screened for the first time since opening the Venice Film Festival, is a thrilling 90 minutes.

“The reason for making this movie was to create a roller coaster ride of an adventure,” writer Jonas Cuarón – son of the director – said last night while introducing the film. In the movie two astronauts, played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are stranded in space after being violently separated from their space vehicle.

Extreme stories of survival mark this year's Telluride Film Festival. Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave (NYFF51), in which a Northerner is kidnapped into slavery, and JC Chandor's All is Lost (NYFF51), featuring a lone man lost at sea, place characters in worst case scenario situations that seem unimaginably bleak. Audiences witness individuals in harrowing danger and are provoked to contemplate the intense physical and emotional experiences these characters must endure in order to survive.

“Overcoming challenges you can reach a catharsis,” writer Jonas Cuarón detailed last night, explaining that he hoped to show his characters experiencing a bit of a reboot. Standing on stage at the Werner Herzog Theater here in Telluride, his dad Alfonso Cuarón elaborated, “We wanted to make a film about adversities,” because from such hardship a character can effectively be reborn. 

Sandra Bullock in Gravity.

The personal transformation depicted in Gravity comes amidst dramatic events that befall its characters, moments that are heightened by singular cinematic moments. The enhanced sights and sounds of the film are unlike any ever seen on screen before (its effects rendered in stunning 3D and with pounding Dolby sound). But, the story is told with few words.

Alfonso Cuarón said last night that he hoped to strip back the story and the dialogue as much as possible to heighten the experience for the audience.

With so little language to hold on to, “every single word was going to be magnified,” he said.

Similarly, JC Chandor used virtually no dialogue in All Is Lost, an at sea story in which the lead character (played by Robert Redford) wakes up on his boat one morning to discover that he's taking on water after a freak collision. Alone on the ocean, the character is forced to fend for himself against increasing adversity.

Robert Redford in All Is Lost.

There's an existential aspect to the story, Robert Redford said the other night here at the Telluride Film Festival where he was awarded a festival medal for his more than 50 years of film acting.

“I've always been interested, like Jeremiah Johnson, in people who go through a terrible ordeal,” Redford explained, referencing his 1972 mountain survival story during a conversation at the tribute. “All there is to do is to keep going,” he said, “That's what this is about.”

While the role in All Is Lost shows a character being tested, Redford said that he also wanted to push himself as an actor.

“You give yourself over to the character,” he said on Friday night (as detailed by Thompson On Hollywood), “You have to live through these tests. In a real way I wanted to know at this point in my life what I was able to physically do. I hadn't lost myself in a character in a while. It was tough.”

A similar endurance test for an actor can be seen in Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance in 12 Years a Slave, the devastating and moving new film that has had emotional screenings this weekend here at the Telluride Film Festival.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave.

The shocking true story of Northerner Solomon Northrup, a free African American man who was kidnapped into Southern slavery in 1841, is tortuously depicted through the solitary moment in which Ejiofor's character wakes up in chains just hours after being lured to Washington D.C. with the promise of a job offer.

Intense lashings at the hands of white masters, extended scenes of tranquil Southern plantation landscapes and the poignant songs sung by slaves create both painful and at times beautiful cinematic moments throughout British filmmaker Steve McQueen's third feature film.

“I wanted to make a movie about slavery and was looking for an in, as such,” McQueen explained yesterday during the Q&A that followed a profoundly emotional showing here.

Audience members could be heard loudly sobbing throughout the packed theater as the film came to an end. When McQueen and actors Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt took the stage they were met with a hearty standing ovation.

“I am so proud of it, this is why I wanted to get into films,” Pitt said on stage yesterday, “I find it difficult to speak afterwards. I know what it takes to get to where these guys got to and I feel incredibly humbled.”

During the post screening discussion, Brad Pitt asked rhetorically why there were relatively few movies about slavery when there are plenty of movies made about the Holocaust. “It took a Brit to do it,” he noted, looking over at filmmaker Steve McQueen.

McQueen's search for a slavery story eventually lead him to Solomon Northrup. The filmmaker's wife, a historian, found his memoir and shared it with her husband.

“As soon as it was in my hand I couldn't put it down,” McQueen, who now lives in Amsterdam, recalled yesterday during the Telluride discussion, “It was like reading Anne Frank's diary, only 100 years earlier.”

Eugene Hernandez is filing daily dispatches from the Telluride Film Festival for FilmLinc Daily. Follow him on Twitter for updates: @eug