Freefall: Criticizing Gravity

I spent quite a few hours since watching Gravity reflecting on my impulsive twitter when I called it the best film I’d seen all year, saying a lot given the recent praise rained upon Rush. After digesting it some, I’ve come to the conclusion that my initial assessment was…pretty much solid, but one with an asterisk indicating that I’m fully aware of its faults, both ones I consider important along with those shouted by those who feel the need to be heard. First of all, to the review, all the praise you’ve heard or read should be enough to warrant seeing this film, especially if you have a shred of love for science fiction and space in general.

Now with that out of the way, Gravity, or perhaps Freefall–which would have been an equally cool title for the film—is about two astronauts being marooned in low-Earth orbit, cut off from all communication as well as from all other human contact. What the film’s trailer never truly conveys is that the film is effectively a single action set piece broken up into three stages separated by moments of inhalation. There was a point where I thought the film was going to cut to a flashback or a scene back on Earth; it never happens. We remain with our two heroes until the last moment, with many scenes being shot with the illusion of a single-take (a feat impossible given every frame of film is mostly a digital effect).
What’s been bothering me is the level of vitriol surrounding the film’s scientific accuracy. I don’t often read about the swarms of angry nerds frothing over the fact that the Moon is apparently no longer tidal locked in the eyes of Michael Bay or that burning the calories pumped into people used as batteries would produce more energy, but suddenly I’m reading about how up-in-arms people are that two astronauts managed to move from the orbit of something 350 miles up to the orbit of something 230 miles up in the span of only a few minutes or the fact that satellite communication is disrupted despite them being hundreds of miles further away than the events featured in this film. Let’s address these issues with a grain of salt given the film never tries to fully explain what is happening; only how people react to them.

The space disaster occurring less than ten minutes into the film is something known as the Kessler Syndrome—a theoretical event which occurs when satellites begin crashing into each other, which spawns more debris that impact other satellites resulting in a deadly region around Earth preventing mankind from either using communication satellites or even escaping from our planet. This threat is so prevalent and realistic, satellites are pulled down from their orbit rather than be allowed to remain drifting in unpredictable paths in the chance they may start such a chain reaction. In Gravity, the Russians destroy a low orbit military satellite rather than allow it to enter the atmosphere. Do you think they wouldn’t? Unfortunately, despite an agreement insisting satellites crashing to Earth in foreign nations be returned to their country of origin, there has been evidence of nations covering up such landings in the past, including one where (and I shit you not, this is true) the US government allowed their own citizens to endorse a UFO cover-up conspiracy in order to shroud the recovery of an actual Russian satellite.

Is Gravity then scientifically feasible then? Of course not. Sandra Bullock crawls out of her spacesuit in her underwear rather than in a diaper and a liquid-cooling /ventilation garment. Both her and Clooney exhibit remarkable plier-like kung-fu grip despite suit gloves being notoriously hard to use. But instead critics go after Clooney’s MMU, or manned maneuvering unit, claiming it doesn’t have close to the fuel or the speed to pull off what it does in the film—apparently critics were too busy tweeting their displeasure when Clooney mentioned the jetpack as a “new” design. New…meaning the attributes of the current MMU can no longer apply. The film is peppered with little pieces of dialogue offering you answers, leading credence against the knee-jerk reactionary critics lamenting about the scientific inaccuracy of a film set in space while simultaneously praising Firefly for being realistic.

This involves something I like to call the “bullshit microscope”. Basically, it means the more thought you put into making a science fiction story scientifically accurate, the more assholes will try to pick it apart. So Star Wars gets a pass while Gravity does not. I admit having a threshold when a film tries to be scientifically accurate and ends up creating a technical paradox so confounding that the only answer that could fit the plot is “Jesus did it.” I have to cuddle into a ball and weep each time someone brings up Armageddon. But Gravity doesn’t come close to reaching that limit. With the best freefall effects since Apollo 13 and a gripping story keeping your attention for a taut 90 minutes, Gravity, simply put, does more than enough, more than we can ask, and if you are one of those people who STILL insists it could have done more to be scientifically accurate, I must insist that you hand in your Geek all-access laminate, because clearly you’re only posing to hook up with a gamer girl.

Now if you want to discuss matters of plot, that’s another matter entirely, one which true geeks can meet me on. Let’s be honest, Gravity is an impeccably made film, a masterpiece emblematic of the skill of its director and the people who worked on the production. However, despite riveting drama, it’s not what you would call original. I’m not talking about “Marooned” from the 70s—no one remembers that flick. Despite the film 2010 being on my list of favorite films ever seen in life, the famous “spacewalk-buddy” scene from the Leonov to the Discovery is tonally distinctive enough to let pass. However, I speak of two similar films from 2000—Mission to Mars and Red Planet. Both were reflective of the technical limitations of the time but shockingly still hold up rather well today. They are not great films to be sure, with Mission to Mars making more money despite Red Planet being clearly the superior film (yeah, I said it). But despite Gravity leaving both of these progenitors in the dust, it doesn’t change the fact that two scenes in Gravity were lifted from these films.
Yes, the geek in me has spoken. I will criticize Gravity for its plot but not on its attempts at scientific accuracy. Now, I’m going to watch 2010 again.

OH—also, Gravity is set after 2020, when the Chinese space station is fully built and a new shuttle, Explorer is commissioned, probably a faster, sleeker variant based on the old design, useful since it’s the only vehicle able to dock directly to the Hubble Space Telescope, necessary since Bullock’s character is modifying it in order to extend its operational lifespan. Just saying…the clues are there.


Chris Dias

Chris Tavares Dias is the literary equivalent of that crusty burnt cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot. Some people claim he looks like Mathew Perry. He would like that to be true. It's not. In 2010, Chris co-wrote and created Amethyst Foundations, a 4th Edition setting based on the previous version under 3.5. It has received critical acclaim for integrating science fiction into classical fantasy. In August of this year, Chris was last seen staring at a dead raven that had fallen beside his car. Two months later, his watch and notepad were found in the stomach of a basking shark that had washed ashore off the coast of Florida.

4 thoughts on “Freefall: Criticizing Gravity

  • October 25, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    It was pretty good, except for the “end of rope” scene that was just silly. What on Earth (or space) is pulling on Clooney after they stop? The Force?


    • October 25, 2013 at 4:58 pm

      Maybe the rope was moving. There are a couple shots where it looks like it is. Also…maybe it’s elastic. 🙂

    • November 20, 2013 at 12:37 pm

      Kowalski and Stone were effectively one large mass, still moving, but being slowed by the Soyuz’ parachute lines which were sliding off of Stone’s leg. Kawalski estimated that the two of them would not come to a stop before the last parachute line let go. By letting go, the remaining lines only had to stop Stone’s motion. This was actually more-or-less correct physics.

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