Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Gravity


2014 Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) Nominee: Gravitywritten by Alfonso Cuarón & Jonás Cuarón, directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Esperanto Filmoj; Heyday Films; Warner Bros.)

Some spoilery thoughts behind the link. Hint: I don't really like disaster films, especially ones that seem to take themselves seriously and get a lot of the science unnecessarily wrong.

I'll start out by saying: I had absolutely no desire to watch this movie. I'd heard that this movie was absolutely beautiful, visually. I also heard hat it was entirely about two people trapped in space when disaster struck their shuttle, and one of them dies. Disaster films are not my favorite. Also, films designed to get me attached to a character, so they can kill the character and make me sad - not my favorite. From what I had heard of the film, I fully expected it to be nominated in the Hugos this year, and I was really cross about that because I REALLY didn't want to watch it. If I want beautiful scenes from space, we have a nice IMAX at our local museum, and I can find lots of footage online from the ISS. There's enough horribly dramatic sadness in real life - I don't need more in my fiction.

So, before I gripe more about my expectations, what actually happened in the movie? Dr. Ryan Stone (on her first Shuttle mission) and Matt Kowalski (in command of his last Shuttle flight before his retirement from the program, so of course we know he's going to die) are on a space walk outside the Space Shuttle Explorer. The Russians blow up a satellite, which causes a chain effect, and suddenly satellites are exploding everywhere. This causes a massive debris field which just happens to hit the exact location of the Space Shuttle Explorer, and the International Space Station, and the Chinese Space Station, and I guess all of the other satellites ever (though they're unclear on how many satellites were actually affected beyond the first two). Terror ensues as Stone flies off into space, Kowalski rescues her, they return to the Shuttle to see giant holes blasted in it and their horribly dead and mangled crewmates, they putter off to the ISS to take the Soyuz back to earth and almost fall off of it to drift forever in space, the laws of physics briefly suspend so that we can have Kowalski dramatically drift off into space to die and leave Stone to try to survive alone. The rest of the movie is iteration after iteration of "Something goes wrong," "OMG she's going to die!!!," "She makes it," with the occasional helpful hallucination.

I was initially really cross because I didn't see why this was SCIENCE FICTION. Which to me means, set in the future, exploring something new, be it new science, new worlds, new lifeforms, new cultures, etc. Gravity seemed more like a drama/distaster film set in space -- in a historical setting. We are finished with the Space Shuttle program! Ah, but this disaster-stricken mission is STS 157. Our last Space Shuttle mission was STS 135. The Space Shuttle Explorer must be part of a future where we reinstitute the Space Shuttle program, or an alternate future where we never discontinued it. Also, they have the Chinese Space Station, which doesn't yet exist. So, there's that argument, shot down.
Once the movie actually began, the first thing that really bugged me was Kowalski flying around all over the place in his little spacewalking doo-jobby. Hmm, yes, it makes for great cinema and is probably awesome in 3D, but I don't think an astronaut would be screwing around all crazy like that, would he? They do explain it - he's supposed to be testing out a new technology - ok, maybe.

The pivotal plot point of the movie didn't make a lick of sense to me. When the debris field hit the ISS and Stone was hanging by a rope from her foot, and she grabbed hold of Kowalski's tether, why did he still have forward momentum that would pull them loose and keep him moving outwards? When he hit the end of his tether her catching him should have pulled him back towards her, if we go by the physics of the entire rest of the movie with the constant zero-G inexperienced yo-yo'ing. I think really, he would have just come to a relative stop to her, once she stopped his outward momentum. They needed the drama of Kowalski drifting forever in space, and her feeling like she should have been able to save him, I suppose. And couldn't find a way to do it that made sense within the physics they'd already established in the movie? Remember, this is space we're talking about.

Then there's the whole thing with the debris field from the chain reaction of the exploding satellites. First of all, why would this debris field swipe the ISS and the Hubble AND the Chinese Space Station, repeatedly, all in the same pass? Their orbits are VERY very different from each other, and I presume also from most, if not all, of the other satellites in Earth orbit.

OK, not really two dimensional thinking, exactly. But it really felt like the film WAY over-simplified the way things work in Earth orbit in order to make a very dramatic situation for their story. I couldn't suspend my disbelief. I'm guessing the film makers saw something like one of these maps of objects in Earth orbit, and thought "WOW just look at all the possibilities for collisions there!" Maybe? But that map isn't to scale. Space is VAST. Even just the space in Earth orbit. It's really, really vast. All of these things would not happen in such close proximity to each other. 95% of the objects in those maps are "space junk," and yes, the space junk does occasionally necessitate adjustments to the orbits of other satellites, but not on the scale suggested in Gravity.

My next problem suspending disbelief. How could the ISS and the Hubble and the Chinese Space Station be in such close proximity, where they could be seen by each other and one could putter from one to the other without much maneuvering capability like Stone and Kowalski did in their attempts to survive the disaster? They can't. Here's information on the orbit of the Hubble, and information on the orbit of the ISS. That ISS link let's you follow along on Google Map and see which parts of the Earth the inhabitants of ISS are seeing right now. Very cool!! But I digress.

Also, the 90 minute counter thing. I assume that's because the orbit of the Space Shuttle is 90 minutes? So.... that means that the explosive space debris from the chain reaction, what..... is in a stable geosynchronous orbit? Immediately after these explosions? It just... stabilized itself in the exact orbit of both space stations and the Hubble? Oh, and the Chinese Space Station? Which aren't actually in the same orbit as each other, even remotely? What??

Many others have gone into much greater detail about the problems with the science in Gravity. Here are just a couple of them:

Former U.S. Astronaut Scott Parazynski
Neil deGrasse Tyson

If you google "Gravity movie fact check" there are TONS more. I'll leave off with just this list of the things that bothered me the most.

All that said. Some of the scenes in this movie are phenomenally well done. The all-in-one-shot of Stone moving through the ISS was very nice. All the outside shots with the Earth as a backdrop were just beautiful.

Bechdel Test: Technical Fail. Stone does have one very, very brief interaction with another female, about something other than a man. The Explorer's Captain is not a named character, however. To be fair, there only seemed to be four named characters in the entire movie, and all but two characters had almost no lines. That said, it passes the spirit of the test with flying colors - the spirit of the test is whether there are female characters with depth, who are interesting and competent, and who have agency. Gravity certainly passes that test. The idea of the Bechdel Test is to call out movies where female characters are just decoration or romantic plot devices. That is certainly not the case with this film.

So, in summary, here's my thing with Gravity. Yes, it was very beautiful. I do wish I had seen it on the big screen, where it would have been even grander, I am certain. But there were a lot of problems with the science that pulled me out of the movie and irritated me because it was clear they were taking liberties just to create drama and to make their plot idea plausible. It had the opposite effect for me - it all felt very implausible. They created an adrenaline ride with the typical disaster movie formula of "Oh no certain death! Whew, she made it," repeat, repeat, repeat. This is far from my favorite kind of story. In the end, it felt like they were trying to make me feel like space is beautiful but horribly dangerous and why are we even out there? What frustrated me even more: they were correct at the beginning of the movie. Space is an extremely dangerous environment. If they'd stuck with the realities of working in space in Earth orbit, it would have actually been more horrifying - if a debris field had trashed the Shuttle, they would have been completely hosed. There is plenty of very real danger and potential for drama in space. Why did they have to make up all of this completely unbelievable stuff?

Up or down ballot (note for myself): DOWN. Yes, it was beautiful. But if you're shooting a space movie to make me feel like I'm actually there, please try to get more of the science right! Also, I do not care for disaster movies.

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