"I hate space!": "Gravity" actually doesn't suck.

“I hate space!”: “Gravity” actually doesn’t suck.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is a beautiful, visceral treat of cinema. Although some people seem to have the film billed as sci-​​fi, this isn’t fiction — here is a film set around characters living and working in low Earth orbit, and we do this every day — there are people living and working 400 kilometers above you at the moment, although perhaps this is almost routine these days and easily forgotten. But living and working in space is a matter of sometimes-​​fragile people whose lives depend on sometimes-​​fragile technology.

The film does, I think, live up to the standard of Cuarón’s earlier work such as Children of Men.

There are no aliens or monsters here — this isn’t science fiction. The film’s antagonist is simply a whole lot of cold, dark, lonely vacuum. But as Jayne Cobb put it, it’s impressive what nothing can do to a man.

Gravity is quite a spectacle — if the worst criticism we can find of the film is that Sandra Bullock’s hair doesn’t float around realistically I think that demonstrates that it really is a pretty great film. There are scenes where I’m still not sure exactly how Cuarón’s crew have actually filmed the thing — the cinematography and CGI alone is a delight, especially in 3D. The real-​​world setting, with no blatant supernatural fiction, adds something to the film’s emotional quality. (By the way, people with relatively long hair have amazing hairstyles with hair unrestrained in an environment of apparent weightlessness, even if the film doesn’t show it.)

Check out the trailer, if you like:

I just hope the film doesn’t scare away too many future astronaut volunteers.

Sure, if you’re one of those people who wants to nitpick every little technical inaccuracy in the film and not allow any artistic license for the sake of the plot then I’m sure you can spot a few small technicalities — the orbit of the Hubble Space Telescope, at about 560 kilometers, is significantly higher than that of the International Space Station at about 340 kilometers and the orbital plane is significantly different too. A space shuttle can’t get to the ISS from the orbit of Hubble, and a manned maneuvering pack certainly can’t.

Whilst a small number of communications satellites, such as the Iridium constellation, are in low Earth orbit, even those are above the orbits of Hubble and ISS, and most communications satellites are in geosynchronous orbit, much much higher still. The Chinese Tiangong space station is also portrayed as a large multi-​​module space station comparable to the ISS, whereas the Tiangong vehicles (in their current form) are relatively small. The film is apparently set in an alternative near-​​future where the Tiangong station is highly advanced and expanded, to a size comparable to the ISS, but the Space Shuttle is still in use. And is it really realistic that even the most psychologically stable trained astronauts could maintain their mettle in such extreme circumstances?

In one dark moment, Sandra Bullock’s character contemplates prayer — but although people used to pray to the gods who were once said to live in the sky, when you’re the one who lives hundreds of kilometers up in the sky for six months, who do you pray to then?

“Life in space is impossible”, the film’s epigraph tells us. You know, just in case some of the film’s audience have been home-​​schooled creationists for the last 50 years or something and they might not be aware that in space, without the technology of an artificial atmosphere, you will die.

Despite a tiny bit of artistic license in the plot, though, there’s so much in the film that is basically technically solid — the ISS is portrayed at least basically realistically, as is the Space Shuttle-​​based on-​​orbit servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. The Soyuz and Shenzhou spacecraft are also portrayed with a basic degree of realism. Not that it matters — although perhaps it does add a little to the overall prettiness of the film. Who cares, really — this isn’t a documentary, but it’s further from fiction than any space-​​based drama I can remember since the genuine true story of Apollo 13, and even the Bronx’s nerdiest astrophysicist would admit it’s a delight for the senses.

Recommended. Especially recommended in 3D and/​or IMAX.

Feature image: Tracy Caldwell Dyson in the cupola module of the ISS, watching the Earth. I suspect that getting distracted watching the Earth go by is by far the single greatest cause of astronaut procrastination.