Watching the first 10 minutes of Alfonso Cuarón's lost-in-space adventure Gravity is both fascinating and disorienting. Astronauts Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) repair the Hubble Space Telescope. Veteran space jockey Kowalski jet-packs around the structure, sharing jokey anecdotes as rookie engineer Stone nervously tries to do her job. Soon debris from an exploding satellite sends Stone and Kowalski hurtling into open space while killing their crew. Survival is at stake, and all I could think was, "Has this all been one sustained shot for the first 10 minutes?"
The answer is yes, and it's a prime example of what makes Gravity so frustrating. Cuarón can't resist turning his movies into showcases for stunt camera work. When revolutionary visual trickery is integrated seamlessly into a story, it can help make a movie magic. When it waves its arms and demands that you pay attention to it, you're less likely to get wrapped up in the characters' plight and to forget you're watching a movie.
Fortunately, there's some excitement in the setup that Cuarón doesn't overwhelm with bells and whistles. As Kowalski and Stone realize their shuttle is beyond repair, and that oxygen supplies in Stone's suit are running particularly low, they decide that their only hope is to jet to the relatively nearby International Space Station. There, they can try to use one of its shuttles to return to Earth. Thus begins a series of crises: Will they have enough air to make it to the station alive? Will they find a functioning shuttle when they get there? And will more space junk head in their direction?
Cuarón spends little time establishing his characters, but since he knows how to structure a suspense story, the dangers facing our heroes result in plenty of visceral thrills. Running on fumes as they make their way toward the space station, Kowalski and Stone spin and grasp frantically for something to keep them from sailing into open space again.
This is eye-popping stuff. Cuarón creates plenty of tension, too, making magnificent use of the loss of equilibrium in a zero-gravity environment. But when he wants to give us emotion, he has Stone cry inside this zero-gravity environment, then pulls the focus forward to make sure we know he can create a floating 3D teardrop. Gravity is a fairly effective magic show, but it's the kind where the magician never lets you forget what sorts of tricks he can do.