Review: Gravity

"I hate space!"

Gravity is a spectacular, awe-inspiring and thrilling film which retrospectively really ticks me off.

It never ceases to astonish me how good special effects are right now. We're spoilt! Ron "Apollo 13" Howard would have killed for this technology. I saw Gravity on a screen which claimed to be IMAX (but realistically, probably wasn't quite there), and what I saw was crystal clear and so lush as to be almost edible. We are finally, finally in an era in which 2001: A Space Odyssey - the high water mark of space technology FX for what, four decades? - has been definitively surpassed. We have perfect clarity of picture in an environment entirely without atmospheric effects. More importantly, we're finally in an era which can do that environment justice. It really looks like that!

We have impressively accurate reproduction of real-world space hardware from the Space Shuttle (called Explorer in the film, but for some reason still referred to as Atlantis on the soundtrack?) to individual one-of-a-kind wirecutters. And laudably accurate and effective use of sound, and that booming bass score by Steven Price, clearly taking cues from Jaws. In case the rest of this thing persuades you otherwise, I think this is a film you should see. It is a spectacle. It is one of the films which justify the existence of cinemas.

At any rate, if you're meaning to watch it, you should probably do so before reading the rest of this.

I disagree very strongly with the message of Gravity.

"Space is terrible," says the film. "Do not go there. You're only a real human being if you're on the ground." Space is a place where the protagonist undergoes a profound transformation - and this is arguably one of the more technically accurate aspects of the film, as this is a real, observed phenomenon in space travellers, going back as far as Yuri Gagarin. But the transformation doesn't mean anything until the lady is walking on solid ground again. In fact it barely takes hold until she's well on her way home! Sandra Bullock's character is too much of a figurative baby to understand how amazing it is, and how privileged she is, to be working in space. She blows up, by my estimation, some two hundred billion dollars' worth of space hardware in the process of trying to get back into her comfort zone.

"If you do go there," says the film, "get what you need and come back as soon as possible." The scientific justifications for space exploration receive no acknowledgement in dialogue, even though the Hubble's right there in shot. "Half of North America just lost their Facebook," says a character, as if that's the greatest loss that would arise from a real Kessler outbreak.

Gravity has strong spiritual themes, including an event whose most embarrassingly unscientific interpretation would be a visit from the afterlife. Are astronauts spiritual? I have no doubt of this. Is space an environment where survival has nothing to do with faith and everything to do with rigid adherence to procedure and respect for cold, implacable equations? Yes. Is this a film where the character who does everything absolutely by the book dies for it, and the spunky rookie relying on inner strength lives? Yes.

(And another thing. What's the point of having incredibly long single continuous shots be your directorial trademark, and then making a space film which doesn't have a long real-time continuous shot stretching from orbit all the way through re-entry to climbing out of the capsule at ground level? I mean, what the hell?)

The film opens with some fixed text explaining how hostile space is. The final line of this text is "LIFE IN SPACE IS IMPOSSIBLE". Meanwhile, the ISS has been continuously inhabited for more than fifteen years. Cuarón even blows it up, just to make sure it doesn't contradict his point.

Gravity is disrespectful to the accomplishments of space explorers. It reduces space travel to a purely selfish emotional journey.

Astronauts have important and dangerous work to do up there, and the emotionally immature are not admitted.

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Discussion (17)

2013-11-18 14:44:32 by Lumen:

Preach!

2013-11-18 16:29:40 by ajay:

Completely disagree... the message of the film is that space is _beautiful_, the characters say so and the camerawork makes it obvious. And the plucky rookie doesn't save herself by relying on faith and inner strength. She saves herself with checklists! in three-ring binders! It's very Right Stuff.

The two bits that I disliked were
a) everything in space seems to be right next door to everything else. Space to Cuaron is like England is to an American. "You're the Hubble? Oh, you must know the International Space Station! Because you guys are both from space!"
and b) I was not entirely sure why one of the two main characters had to let go and die, nor what exactly dragged him off to death. He was in space, not hanging off the edge of a bridge. If he'd let go, he shouldn't have gone anywhere at all. (Tidal forces?)

2013-11-18 18:55:19 by Eldritch:

That is 100% not the message I got out of it AT ALL.

What I got out of it was something like "'Life in space is impossible.' Sure, but we're up there ANYWAY, living." It was an inspiring, uplifting story about the power and resilience of the human spirit.

Space is dangerous, but it's beautiful, and no matter what, we can survive that danger.

(I mean, if you squint REAL HARD, I kind of get where you might see "space is awful, we should stop going there!" in there, but that's like watching Terminators 1 and 2 and getting "AI is awful, computer science should be abandoned!" as the film's theme.)

I'm sorry that that was the message you got; if I'd gotten that message out of it, it would have seriously damaged my ability to enjoy the film.

2013-11-18 18:58:37 by Eldritch:

@Ajay

With respect to a), I didn't really mind that. It's like with dramatizations of documentaries - "time and space have been compressed for the purposes of this film, and some characters are composites." Hubble and Tiangong and the ISS were right next to each other because the film was only so long and it didn't really take away from the story.

b), however, was a MAJOR problem, and only barely excusable. The ONE scene where they get the physics of space so utterly wrong, after getting it near pitch-perfect for the entire rest of the film, and it's the plot-critical scene? Aaaaaargh.

2013-11-18 22:09:18 by bbot:

@Eldritch:

I had been assuming that a big debris impact had put a spin on the ISS, and the attitude control system was turned off because plot or something.

2013-11-18 22:11:28 by DZ:

@Ajay/Eldritch

My interpretation of that (and maybe I'm being too generous, but it seems pretty plausible to me) is that throughout that whole scene, the two of them were continuing to drift away from the station; the ropes/cables were slowing them, but uncoiling or stretching out as they went. Kowalski could (somehow) tell that they would give way before completely stopping both of them, but would be able to stop just Stone.

(I just discovered that this is evidently the same explanation given by the movie's scientific advisor and a NASA engineer that the Washington Post talked to (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/10/21/heres-what-gravity-gets-right-and-wrong-about-space/). So I feel a little better throwing this out there.)

2013-11-18 22:37:36 by bbot:

@myself:

Shamus Young spoke at length on the problem of trust in the storyteller: http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=17692 and http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=17745

> Do you trust the writer? Do you believe they are playing by the rules they’ve established? When something implausible happens, this creates tension. Not tension in the story, but tension in the viewer. How you resolve that tension depends on how much you trust the storyteller. Do you question the veracity of the story, or do you question what you think you know about the world of the story? Did they make a mistake, or are you not giving them enough credit? Heck, this doesn’t even have to apply to just stories. This can apply to almost any kind of writing…

Gravity is a greater or a lesser film depending on how much you trust Cuarón. I trusted him quite a lot just from how accurate the space hardware was, visually, in the first five minutes, so I gave him a huge amount of slack for the rest of the movie. (i.e thrusting straight at a destination to get there, when both you and the object are in an orbit, etc) I didn't even know he had directed Children Of Men when I went in the theatre! Imagine how much slack I would have given him then.

(Another movie that was very pretty but didn't make a huge amount of sense, now that I think about it.)

**EDIT:** Sam512, your parser complains when I don't close <p> tags, which is valid HTML5. Which schema do you use for qntm?

2013-11-18 22:53:36 by qntm:

HTML comments have to conform to the described subset of XHTML 1.0 Strict.

I'll probably put something more lenient one of these days.

2013-11-18 23:27:59 by OvermindDLone:

@sam
Perhaps a markup parser? Plenty of libraries and standalone programs for that to export to many things safely, such as html5. Markup is extremely easy to type and looks good in its raw form even without being parsed. It is a standard in coding circles for a long while now.

2013-11-19 00:05:51 by QuillMcGee:

About the scene where they're hanging off by the ropes.
You can have there be a rotation or tidal forces or whatever to have them not be able to stop, OR you can have her being pulled back to the station as fast as she was, but you can't have both. if there was that much tension, they should have both stopped quickly and begun moving back to the station.

2013-11-19 01:20:26 by bbot:

@OvermindDLone

You're thinking of Markdown?

2013-11-19 20:30:29 by James:

My issue with this film is best described here:
http://gizmodo.com/a-real-astronaut-uncovers-the-gaping-plot-whole-in-gra-1429039740

2013-11-20 08:12:34 by MichaelGrosberg:

I think the message is life in space is very, very difficult. And it's not a bad message. Many people don't understand the enormous difficulties astronauts experience doing even the simplest of activities in space, not to mention the difficulty of getting there and back. Hopefully it will make people appreciate astronauts (and the engineers who design and build space hardware) more.

P.s. I almost entered "e" as the answer to the square root of minus one, and now I'm experiencing an existential crisis. Am I a bot?

2013-11-21 00:04:58 by OvermindDLone:

@bbot Yes that... I think my phone auto corrected markdown to markup or I was near brain death then, both quite possible... >.>

2013-11-27 02:30:17 by nshepperd:

About this:

> She blows up, by my estimation, some two hundred billion dollars' worth of space hardware in the process of trying to get back into her comfort zone.

I thought it was the Kessler outbreak that did that. Surely she didn't have any control over where the space debris went. I suppose she could have attempted to move one of the satellites/stations out of the debris' orbit instead of taking a soyuz, but I imagine that without guidance she'd mess up the calculations and end up in an equally dangerous (eccentric?) orbit.

2014-04-21 23:23:08 by Richard:

Another boring movie spreading the world view that life is fragile and we need to conform for our own good... like I couldn't do better like... lol. Did I mention it was boring?

2014-07-07 03:08:36 by Aegeus:

Life *is* fragile. Outside of the shuttle-load of protective technology our astronauts have, space will kill you very quickly.

The movie is about surviving in spite of that. Doing everything you can, using every one of those protective tools, because you want to survive. That's the whole point of Stone's character arc - she realizes that she doesn't want to die despite everything that's happened to her, and finds the strength to move on.

You can call it conformism, but "I don't want to die" is one thing that I think everyone can agree on.