Gravity

They say you have to “suspend disbelief” to enjoy some movies, but when a movie is about something you’re really interested in, it becomes more difficult as the filmmakers take “artistic license” to the extreme.  The new movie “Gravity” is one such example.  Where to begin with all that’s wrong with this film?

First, let me tell you what was good.  The technical aspects were first rate.  The visuals, the micro-gravity, most of the movement were spot on.  It looked almost like it was filmed in space!  The scenes of the astronauts in orbit, the Earth, the space shuttle and space station looked incredibly real.  The story line was mostly good, but some really odd things popped in from time to time, making one wonder “what the hell was that?”  (the chinese guy talking with the barking dog and crying baby? huh?)

Now, for the bad…

[SPOILERS ALERT]

I’m going to try to do this in order, but I’ve only seen the movie once, so I may get the sequences wrong, but bear with me.

Right off the bat, you have three astronauts working outside of the shuttle.  That’s not bad, but each of them were doing different tasks.  While it was not uncommon for crews to be doing two different tasks, it’s not reasonable to have three going on.  That’s too much for the on-board crew to keep track of, not to mention the various ground support systems that come along at each step of a space-walk.  You really wouldn’t have someone working on the Hubble Space Telescope while someone else is jetting around the shuttle at ridiculous speeds with a MMU (manned maneuvering unit – the jet pack).  Those things are used in a slow, deliberate manner, and the jet exhausts risk fouling the optic of the Hubble.  And you’d never fly in and around the robot arm and up close to the working astronaut at those speeds.  You don’t do things fast in space, since there’s no room for error.

Next.  Daytime spacewalks with no sun shields in the visors.  Yeah, I know…  you can’t see the actor’s faces if that gold plate is down. Still.

ABORT! ABORT!  Really?  They only had a few seconds notice?  Listen, a bit of orbital mechanics 101 is required here.  Items in a particular orbit pretty much all travel at the same speed.  Blow up a satellite in a particular orbit, and there’s a bunch of debris floating around, but since everything in that particular orbit is, by dint of Newton’s laws, traveling at pretty much the same speed, there’s not going to be this huge debris field coming at you at a huge velocity differential.  There might be some pieces that get hurled ahead in the orbit due to the force of the explosion that blew up whatever the satellite was before, but mostly you just have a slowly expanding field of debris that will begin to fall out of orbit.  That huge debris field pummeling the Shuttle, the ISS, and the astronauts is just not real.

Now, I suppose if a spy satellite, a big one, were in a higher orbit than our intrepid astronauts, and someone blew it up with a missile, the parts would begin to de-orbit, and might cross the path of the shuttle.  But that would not be a surprise event.  You’d have a lot of notice that it was coming, even if the explosion was fairly recent.  You’d probably have only one time when debris is crossing the path of the shuttle and space stations.  The second and third encounters with all the debris probably would not even happen.  Any debris that does threaten our equipment in space approaches at a much more sedate rate.  There’s danger from collisions, but the shredding of the shuttle and the station is just not going to happen from the remains of a satellite.  The whole speeding-space-junk zapping the shuttle and space station is just not believable, in the context of this story.  And to have only one of the astronauts injured by all that debris, if we’re going to accept that something like this can happen, is again stretching my willingness to suspend disbelief more than I can stand.

The Hubble Space Telescope orbits the Earth about an extra two hundred and fifty miles or so higher than the Space Station.  When the shuttles went on servicing missions, they had to take extra fuel to reach that orbit.  In “Gravity”, the Hubble and the Space Station are in visual range, and so is the Chinese space station.  Not even close, sorry.  Reality cancels the movie again.

The spinning and flinging around of the astronauts was a bit more hectic than would be actually experienced.  At the rate they were showing, there would be a serious risk of the astronaut passing out from the centripetal forces, which do not rely on gravity to function.  Suspense heightening to watch, but probably not realistic, especially if we’re relying on speeding debris to impart momentum to our unfortunate space walker.  Grabbing a hold of hand rails to keep from rocketing out into space is a bit too much to go with, too.  Those gloves are stiff, and trying to hold on to a handrail while momentum is trying to hurl you away is not going to be easy.  I don’t see someone getting thrown around like that being able to hold on.

OK.  Clooney zooms up in his jetpack to save Bullock after she get’s tossed out into space.  He tows her back to the International Space Station, where they had planned to use one of the Soyuz capsules as a lifeboat.  A lot of damage, cables floating everywhere, and the parachutes have deployed making the Russian lifeboat useless.  Then in an incredibly bad scene, gravity-wise, they sacrifice Clooney.  They’re dangling by one thin cord that’s connected to the space station, and the other end wrapped around Bullock’s leg.  Clooney is attached to her by a tether, but she’s slipping!  Clooney does the valiant thing, and disconnects and drifts away.  Wait! What?  Why?  THEY’RE BOTH JUST FLOATING THERE!  They’ve arrested their momentum, and all they have to do is pull themselves back to the station.  It’s not them hanging off a cliff, and the hero sacrifices himself by letting go…  there were a dozen other ways they could have had Clooney die heroically, but this just screamed “easy out!”.

OK, so our last surviving lady manages to get inside the space station’s airlock just as her suit runs out of air.  She shucks that thing is short order, and is floating around in her undies and T-shirt.  GROAN.   Space suits are complicated things.  They’re actually spaceships that you wear.  You don’t get in and out of one by yourself, you need help.  They don’t just slip off in a second or two.  And she didn’t have the thermal underwear on.  You don’t wear a space suit without the underlying cooling/heating system.

The fire in the ISS is probably pretty realistic, at least until the fireball chases her into the Soyuz.  I get really tired of Hollywood showing folks just barely avoiding the flaming surge, but not experiencing any injury.  You know, from heat?  A lot of it.  Oh well, more dramatic license.  I can hardly fault this movie for doing what every other explosion laden film does.  But still.

Firing up the Soyuz, and getting tangled up in cables is probably realistic.  Until she starts bouncing around.  Little tiny pieces of space junk can shred the station, but this huge bus sized thing gets tossed around and bounces off like bumper cars?  Sigh.  She survives another pass of the debris field while outside the Soyuz, unhooking the cables.  After she almost loses the wrench.  Again.  Why is she an astronaut?

Well, this Soyuz can’t land, so let’s go grab the Chines version!  It’s just over there.  Zoom!  Use the landing jets to close with the station, but since you’re going so fast, you need to jettison the hatch and jump!  Sigh. Again.  That fire extinguisher just isn’t going to cut it as a rocket pack, regardless whether or not WALL-E made it work.  Oh, and by the way, where was the life support and pressure apparatus on her borrowed Russian flight suit?  And why didn’t it expand to maker her a stiff mannequin?

OK, she gets to the Chinese station and gets inside, just as it’s starting to skim the atmosphere.  (not that space stations orbit that low, but what are you going to do?  You need to up the dramatic license again)  While the design of the Chinese ship is essentially the same as the Russian one, all the controls are labeled in, you guessed it!, Chinese.  Does our intrepid astronaut with six months of training remember how to fly this machine?  Apparently so, because she manages to disconnect from the station, avoid the debris as it disintegrates in the upper atmosphere, blows the service and flight modules, and heads for the ground.

Somehow, the Chinese craft manages to stop tumbling and head in heat-shield first.  But wait!  What’s that??  Oh no!  Some of the debris from the space station is CATCHING UP TO THE CAPSULE!  Even though it should all be traveling the same speed, with the little pieces burning up, something almost catches up, but our intrepid hero escapes!  The chute opens, and we land in a lake.  Blow the hatch, and of course the thing starts to sink.  Happily, it’s not a deep lake, and even though Bullock sinks immediately to the bottom because the suit fills with water, she’s gotten good at shucking space suits in short order, and manages to swim to the surface and makes her way to shore.  Once again in her undies and t-shirt.  Score one for the good guys (gals).

So. Overall, probably an exciting movie, if you’re not up on your space ship and space station and astronaut related laws of physics.  Our heroine survives, the hero valiantly sacrifices his life to save hers (even though …  oh, never mind), and Sandra Bullock gets to show some skin in her undies and t-shirt.

I’ll probably watch the movie again sometime, on Netflix or some other service, but I doubt I’ll buy the Blue-Ray.  There’s just too much wrong with this film, and Space Cadet JimmieJoe, who kept whispering “but.. but…” in my head during the viewing, was not happy.   That’s a shame, too.  There are so many dramatic possibilities with this setting, and with as much money as they spent on it, they could have had an exciting, edge-of-your-seat movie, and still got almost all of the science right.  Maybe next time.

 

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