Gravity Movie Review

WOW! Wow, oh fricken’ WOW is that one hell of a movie!

Ok, I guess I need to say a few more words than that, not the least of which is that I loved, loved, loved, Gravity! Sure it’s not without it’s nits to be picked, and I’ll pick a few because science, but I also understand it’s a movie that has to appeal to a wide audience.

And boy howdy, did it ever! The gasps, applause, and dead silence from the audience were easily audible, even over the theater sound system. And while 3D movies generally don’t appeal to me, the IMAX 3D experience really put me in space.

To get a sense of what this film is about, let’s take a look once again at the trailer:

Ho-lee Crap!

I just saw the film last night and that trailer still got my heart jumping! As you can see, this is a sci-fi thriller about survival in an impossible situation. I think that’s an apt description since much of what happens in this film is pretty much impossible. But what the film offers in return for your suspension of disbelief is well worth the ride.

Having seen all of the trailers, I pretty much had the entire storyline worked out before walking into the theater, but that in no way ruined the film for me. Like Apollo 13, Gravity had me on the edge of my seat right up to the end.

NOTE: From here on, it’s going to get spoiler-ific so be warned…

Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts on an EVA during a Hubble Space Telescope (HST) Servicing mission. Their shuttle Explorer is destroyed by incoming debris, stranding them alone in orbit. They have to make their way to the International Space Station so they can climb into a Russian Soyuz spacecraft and make their way home before the station and Soyuz are destroyed with them in it.

Real astronauts are usually not this good looking. (Image: Warner Bros.)
Real astronauts are usually not this good looking. (Image: Warner Bros.)

That’s it. Not a very complex story in and of itself and in fact, Gravity clocks in at only 1.5 hours93 minutes. But it’s a near real-time thriller that really puts you in space along with the characters. In fact, I had to sit quietly in my car before leaving the theater because I was still feeling a little dizzy afterward!

During their EVA, Houston warns Explorer that an old satellite was shot down by the Russians and its fragments are moving at high speed toward them. It’s worth noting that the voice of Mission Control was provided by Ed Harris, who played Mercury astronaut John Glenn in The Right Stuff and Flight Director Gene Krantz in Apollo 13, a very nice touch!

A short while later, the high-speed debris shreds Explorer,  Hubble, and all of the STS-157 crew except for Clooney and Bullock. Bad times.

Truth be told, space debris is a serious problem, but not this serious. Spacecraft are separated by, well, a lot of space. Moreover, they’re orbiting Earth at different altitudes and different inclinations, so collisions are extremely rare.

Still, there needs to be a way to set up the survival story, and this seems to be a much better choice than, say a freak meteor storm that nobody saw coming.  Perhaps a more plausible scenario would be that the shuttle Explorer had some kind of explosion but a) it’s hard to imagine how that would actually happen, and b) even harder to communicate its cause to the audience in couple of minutes of screen time. So fine, incoming debris swarm in. It looks cool as hell and sends our heroes adrift in spectacular fashion.

Update: After I published this post, I’ve since learned that NASA has been concerned about the possibility of a runaway collision scenario, called the Kessler Syndrome, first proposed by NASA scientist David Kessler in 1978. Yikes!

Clooney is able to catch up to Bullock because he happens to be flitting around in a Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). MMUs are real, though they haven’t been used since 1984 (they were deemed too risky following the Challenger disaster). And there’s no reason you’d have an astronaut – especially the Mission Commander – buzzing the shuttle with such an expensive piece of hardware as HST in its cargo bay. But this is evidently a fictionalized, highly risk-tolerant NASA.

With Explorer and the rest of her crew gone, Clooney and Bullock have to make their way to the International Space Station (which has been abandoned due to the incoming swarm) climb into a spare Russian Soyuz, undock, and head for home.

I want my Delta-Vee! Image Credit: Warner Bros
I want my Delta-vee! (Image: Warner Bros)

This was another one of those things I knew I was going to have to just accept for the sake of moving the story along. The reality of course is that changing your orbit from HST to ISS requires far more energy than the space shuttle carries, let alone Clooney’s little jet pack. The film also made the mistake of treating ISS as a stationary object that you simply point yourself toward, fire your jets, and cruise on over to. In reality ISS is orbiting earth as well so you’re literally trying to hit a moving target.

But screw it, the arrival sequence just grabs  you by your tether and doesn’t let go, which cool but also ironic because Clooney’s character would have been around for the rest of the film if he had simply done the same thing.

You want me to let go??? Image Credit: Warner Bros.
You want me to do WHAT??? Image Credit: Warner Bros.

By the end of an incredible slam-into-the-space-station-and-grab-onto-whatever-you-can sequence, Bullock’s foot is caught in the end of the Soyuz‘s parachute lines (which deployed when it was struck by the debris) and Clooney is “dangling” on the end of their tether. Clooney sees Bullock’s foot start to come loose from the parachute line, so he detaches himself and floats away as Bullock slings back to ISS.

NNNNOOOO!!!!!! It’s a heartbreaking scene, but probably not for the reason director Alfonso Cuarón  intended. It was clearly trying to depict the space equivalent of a mountain climber dangling from a rope attached to his partner who is barely holding onto the cliff by her fingertips. He cuts the rope, sacrificing himself so his partner can pull herself up to safety. Think Scott Glenn in Vertical Limit.

But in orbit, they’re weightless for crying out loud! I mean, sure they hit ISS at high speed but once their motion stopped (relative to ISS), Bullock and Clooney could have hauled themselves back to ISS with just a gentle tug on the tether.

Ok, I know, it was a (big) cheat to get Bullock alone so we could see if she could make it home by herself but man, dat hurt.

With the Soyuz’s parachute deployed, there was no way she was going to make it home in that thing so she had to devise a way to unhook the parachute, undock the Soyuz and fly it to the Chinese Tiangong 1 space station, jump into its docked Shenzhou spacecraft (which is based on the Soyuz), and see if she can make it home herself. Since Bullock trained in a Soyuz simulator (for a space shuttle mission? just go with it), she might just be able to pull this off.

Bullock in the Soyuz
Bullock in the Soyuz

Ok, we’re breaking orbital mechanics again for the same reasons I discussed above, but as I said before, the suspension of disbelief is more than offset by what Gravity delivers in return. I couldn’t believe the attention to detail that went into this film. The interiors, hardware, and space suits looked authentic (although I noticed Bullock wasn’t wearing her liquid-cooled long johns when she got out of her space suit, nor was her hair floating about in zero-g, nor…ah screw it, it’s fricken’ awesome.)

I could go on and on about the visuals, the sounds (and appropriate lack thereof), the haunting music, and the incredible performances by Clooney and especially Bullock, but I’ll hold off since I’d be veering out of my lane. Besides, this is long enough post already.

Bottom line, Gravity was amazing, and I highly recommend it. Yes, they had to cheat on the science to move the story along, but overall this was the best depiction of spaceflight I’ve seen in a film since Apollo 13. It’s clear that the filmmakers worked hard to get as much of the story right as they could without impeding the story itself. I can’t wait to see it again. In IMAX. In 3-D.

Update: I since learned that director Alfonso Cuarón understood that the orbits of HST, ISS, and Tiangong 1 are very different, but made a conscious decision to set them all in the same orbit so the characters would be able to continue their journey, and the story in turn. I have to admit this makes a lot of sense, and kudos to Cuarón for appreciating this as well!

I Can’t Wait to See Gravity

Bad day at the office
Bad day at the office

Warner Bros. has been teasing Gravity, a space thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts aboard the fictional space shuttle Explorer (1)Shuttle Explorer is actually not that fictional; it’s is a full-sized mockup shuttle currently on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Its use in the film is a nice nod to the Shuttle program performing an EVA on what appears to be the Hubble Space Telescope. Things are going fairly nominally, until this happens:

In one continuous take, just about everything that could possibly go wrong during an EVA does so in spectacular, and dare I say it, realistic fashion. Now there’s a few nitpicks I could make, not the least of which is how something like this could happen in the first place, but I’ll reserve judgement until after I’ve seen the film. In the meantime…I can’t wait to see this film! For several reasons.

For one thing, I noticed that there was a substantial lack of sound effects and any whoosh or clanging noises were kept to a minimum. The music fills in the rest to add drama, but I don’t think either of those are necessary when all hell is breaking loose up there. Still, it’s nice to see that director Alfonso Cuarón seems to trust us, the audience, to know that the only sounds you will hear in space are those of the radio and your breath.

I’m also very happy that Cuarón has a female as one of the lead characters, even though he supposedly got some grief from studio types in Hollywood about it. Evidently, Hollywood thinks that SF heroes must be male and girls are only there as eye candy. Don’t agree? Go see Pacific Rim.

It’s astonishing that there even has to be a conversation about the idea of female leads in a space film, even though we’ve had female astronauts who perform real-life EVAs and command space shuttles.

In any event, the film clearly seems aimed at being an otherwise realistic portrayal of a nightmare scenario in space. I’m looking forward to this and may even catch this one in IMAX 3-D if it helps put me out in space with the characters. At least I’ll be able to return to Earth afterward.

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1. Shuttle Explorer is actually not that fictional; it’s is a full-sized mockup shuttle currently on display at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Its use in the film is a nice nod to the Shuttle program