By now every movie pundit, space writer and his/her dog has given their opinion about last weekend’s sci-fi blockbuster “Gravity.” And guess what? The general consensus is that Alfonso Cuarón’s creation is one of those rare science fiction flicks that doesn’t suck. Actually, it does far better than that; it’s one of those very rare movies that finds the humanity beneath our urge to explore outer space.
Sure, there are science failings, cheesy George Clooney one-liners and orbital oddities that would jar the senses of any science-conscious brain, but the failings of “Gravity” are just the background static of an otherwise outstanding movie.
Obligatory warning: Satellite-bashing spoilers lay ahead.
On sitting down in the theater to watch Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) bob around in microgravity, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d read the endless fact-checking blogs and tongue-in-cheek comments on Twitter, but I wanted to make my own notes and give a blow-by-blow account of every scientific misstep I could see.
First, I saw a space shuttle docked to the Hubble Space Telescope. Second, I realized that the International Space Station can be seen in the distance (followed later by the Chinese space station, again, a mere stone’s throw away). Ignoring the fact that the shuttle has been retired since 2011 and the orbital altitudes and inclinations of Hubble and the two stations are very different, having all those space assets in such close proximity gave the impression that it’s pretty crowded in space, when the exact opposite is true. Perhaps this is more of an alternate reality, I thought to myself.
Then I was a bit weirded-out by the carefree (and frankly reckless) spacewalking attitudes of Kowalski and his crew — I’m pretty sure that doing barrel rolls with a jetpack (a.k.a. Manned Maneuvering Unit) and playing bungee on safety tethers inside the shuttle’s cargo bay isn’t in the spaceflight manual.
But then our attention focuses on medical engineer Stone, attached to the shuttle’s robotic arm, working on the Hubble. She’s feeling queasy. We quickly identify with her struggles as she looks down on a beautifully pristine Earth. From that moment on, through the terrifying barrage of hypervelocity satellite debris that kills one of the crew and flings Stone away at high speed, to her eventual rescue by Kowalski, I realize that my fact-checking brain had checked out and I was on the edge of my seat consumed by the drama unfolding.
With each gut-wrenching scene, I fell deeper and deeper into the movie, enjoying every moment. The background static of broken laws of physics occasionally taxed my skeptical brain, but I realized that to make a movie on as grand a scale as “Gravity,” while appealing to a general audience, Cuarón needed to strike the balance between science fact, fiction and high drama — a feat he achieved admirably.
As communicated by astronauts during their tours in orbit, there is a strong urge to make sense of their place in the universe. Over-viewing our delicate Earth from above does that to us (there is, in fact, a phenomenon known as the “overview effect” that many astronauts liken to a kind of spiritual awakening). During the movie, through Stone’s every challenge, it’s obvious why Bullock was chosen to star in “Gravity.” She encapsulates her humanity — every horror, depression, elation and contemplative moment. You could feel her emotions and the overview effect didn’t seem that alien. For me, her somber realization that she was about to die inside the Russian Soyuz capsule, evaluating her imminent mortality, was especially poignant.
While this movie cannot really be compared to the elegance of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi classic “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Gravity” has some beautifully serene moments that wowed me. The simple undocking of the Soyuz spacecraft, for example, was reminiscent of the countless undocking events we’ve seen on NASA TV, but this time it was in HD and 3D. The interior of the International Space Station was strikingly familiar, the attention to detail was second to none. The effect of fire in microgravity was wonderfully executed. I loved the stunning orbital vistas that used real high-definition imagery from orbit including little subtleties like airglow. The use of silence at key moments made the drama all the more powerful. All these things were pulled together by an outstanding musical score that will surely go down in sci-fi movie history.
It’s often fashionable to debunk the science of every sci-fi movie, but in a movie as beautifully crafted as “Gravity,” which went to extreme lengths to make space as familiar as possible, the endless critiquing seems unfair. Sacrifices were made and more than once Cuarón forced science-minded viewers to suspend their disbelief, but I don’t think it impacted the story nor the emotion behind this orbital roller coaster ride. This was Sandra Bullock’s movie that will surely put her (and the movie’s special effects) in contention for an Oscar.
Above all, “Gravity” made me think about the men and women who are routinely blasted into orbit, putting their lives on the line for the greater good of humanity.
Mike Massimino, a NASA astronaut who knows more than a thing or two about space, also saw the movie and had some sage advice as to how to treat “Gravity”:
I couldn’t agree more.
Image credit: Warner Bros. Pictures