Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity: ridiculously implausible action fantasy

Gravity is in many ways the best and most beautiful space movie ever made. It depicts an ill-fated Space Shuttle mission that leaves two astronauts to attempt to survive - and cope with the gravity that is pulling them towards the Earth (well, there are some caveats with this explanation, which will be explained later).

I admit that I was critical of this movie once I read who were cast as the two astronauts for this film. For a realistic-looking serious film about astronauts trying to survive in space they had cast two of the most sexy and beautiful people on this planet - George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. I don't have qualms about their acting skills, but I thought it was strange that actors known for their sexiness were cast.


According to IMDB, George Clooney was cast as mission commander Matt Kowalski after Robert Downey, Jr. dropped out to scheduling conflicts. Sandra Bullock was cast as mission specialist Ryan Stone after Angelina Jolie dropped out and Rachel Weisz, Naomi Watts, Natalie Portman, Marion Cotillard, Abbie Cornish, Carey Mulligan, Sienna Miller, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Rebecca Hall and Olivia Wilde were approached. Boy, that is a lot of beautiful women! Is Sandra Bullock only the 13th most beautiful woman on this planet, after all?

Now, we enjoy seeing Clooney's and Bullock's faces. They are incredibly handsome and except for short scenes, that's almost all we see of them. That is probably why producers thought it was paramount that the only two faces seen in the whole film are recognizable and relatable. I still feel uneasy about the thought of how much they appreciated visual beauty of the actors - and the approached actresses are not known for roles as researchers or other technology-related roles. Bullock is especially known for romantic comedies and some action flicks (Speed 2 comes to mind). I was surprised to learn that Carrie-Anne Moss (Matrix, Mission to Mars) or Michelle Yeoh (Sunshine) were not even approached for this role!

Still, Clooney and Bullock perform as professionals and do everything they are expected to do. Their characters have been written to contrast each other: Kowalski is a man, Stone is a woman. Kowalski is a career astronaut, Stone a researcher. Kowalski is experienced and calm, Stone is inexperienced and frightened. Kowalski tells jokes and has good humor, Stone is a serious scientist. Kowalski knows exactly what to do and helps Stone to survive, Stone cries in panic. Kowalski is wearing the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (like a jetpac) needed for survival, Stone is not. Thanks to the Space Shuttle, many kinds of American (and other) astronauts have flown to space, and Eileen Collins (commander of STS-114) is one of the best known ones. In this sense, Kowalski and Stone feel like stereotypes and we have been these before - Robert Duvall's veteran astronaut Spurgeon Tanner in Deep Impact is one example. It is, of course, very convenient to introduce "easy" characters to the audience, so they can concentrate on other elements of the story.

Start of troubles

The film depicts STS-157, a fictional mission for Space Shuttle Explorer, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope, and is thus very much like the real HST Servicing Mission 4 (STS-125), flown in 2009. Near the end of the mission, the crew is told that a Russian space defence experiment goes awry and it results in a chain reaction of debris events which threaten both the shuttle and ISS. Explorer is ordered to abort the mission and ISS evacuated. Before the crew of Explorer can take any action, approaching debris destroys the shuttle and kills its crew, save for Kowalski and Stone, who are left hurtling in orbit.

It seems that Kowalski couldn't care much less about what has happened - he stays calm and helps Stone to come to terms with the new situation. The situation is depicted very realistically and it looks extremely good on the screen (expect for the 3D experience which I still think is a sham). Kowalski has the principle of concentrating to the task at hand and thinking methodologically, which is what all good pilots and astronauts do, and first they check out Explorer, which is a wreck. Knowing that they must find a safe haven in any case - to protect themselves for any additional debris and to make any rescue possible - they head for the ISS which is on the exact same orbit. What?! Since when has Hubble and ISS been on the same orbit?

This is where the film goes ridiculous. Kowalski says ISS is indeed nearby and we can see it clearly in the horizon. In real life, Hubble orbits at an altitude of roughly 650 km, with orbital inclination of 28.5 degrees. ISS orbits at 450 km and 51.65 degrees. Even though there are some passages in the dialog suggesting that they are, in fact, not on the same orbit, they have no trouble traveling from Explorer/Hubble to ISS in a couple of minutes, using EMU's thrusters.

From implausible to ridiculous

As implausible it is, they are able to reach the ISS and grasp the Soyuz spacecraft's deployed parachute, clinging to survival. Even though ISS has suffered some damage, it is intact. This is where Kowalski's extensive spaceflight experience would be crucial, as they might have to fly the Soyuz to the Chinese space station Tiangong (which is also on the same orbit!). However, without explaining why, Kowalski refuses to help Stone any more and sacrifices himself. Just like that he floats away, even though they had already succeeded in the most difficult part of the rescue.

For some mysterious reason, ISS does not have contact with Houston. It is difficult to understand why, because ISS is in constant contact with the TDRS communications satellites in the geostationary orbit, which is not affected by the debris in LEO. Anyway, ISS then blows up and Stone escapes in Soyuz, however she uses all its maneuvering fuel while trying to break free from its parachute. She also removes her helmet many times, even though it is clear that there is a great danger of depressurization. Even though she has spacewalk training, she has no trouble performing an unplanned EVA to detach the parachute, using the Russian Orlan space suit without its backpack. It is not explained why there was a Soyuz docked to ISS - a normal crew of six would have required both Soyuzes as escape ships!

Stone decides to commit suicide because she doesn't know what to do. Hallucinating, she sees Kowalski to return and give her advice. As implausible as this scene is, it is sadly almost believable in the context of the events in this film. Anyway, then Stone uses Soyuz's landing engines to propel it to Tiangong and she reaches it in minutes, and then ejects herself to the station. Now, it seems that they have a velocity difference of perhaps 1 km/s but that is rendered to nil with the help of a fire extinguisher. Stone has no trouble getting inside the space station, but at the same time, the station is reentering the atmosphere with no explanation. Why has its orbital altitude dropped from nominal 450 km to 150 km where it would reenter? With only minutes left, Stone enters the docked Shenzhou spacecraft (its crew having disappeared without explanation) and successfully lands it.

Stone clearly does not like to wear a helmet, even though there is a clear danger of depressurization. This disregard for safety achieves its climax when the ship lands in a lake. You see - even though 70 % of the Earth is water, for some reason this ship lands on land, except that it happens to find a small lake to land on. This has happened with a Soyuz spacecraft once. In 1976, Soyuz_23 landed on frozen Lake Tenzig and the crew waited in the capsule overnight for the rescue crew to arrive, with no immediate danger. All Soyuz landing capsules are equipped with an inflatable raft, food and even a gun to shoot wolves (no joke). I guess we can assume Stone had some reason to exit the craft, but then she almost drowned, as water poured in and she was not wearing a helmet. In seconds, she was able to exit from the Orlan spacesuit and swim to the shore.

The beautiful space

Practically never before have realistic (and real) spacecraft been shown on the screen in such a glory. I have never seen such advanced special effects - everything looked totally real. Before this film, Alfonso CuarĂ³n had directed Children of Men, a thrilling yet very realistic-looking science fiction film that was met with high praise. Gravity sets new standards in the use of special effects that support the story. The depiction of zero-gravity environments is incredibly good and Bullock seems to have no trouble navigating through the ISS in the absence of gravity. Also, the idea of having only two actors in the movie and almost no sound except the masterful music by Steven Price is excellent and was realized surprisingly well and is a bold approach.

As beautifully as spaceships and debris in Gravity are done, there are many compromises. The dangerous space debris looks like a mild wind, bringing trash and dust. In reality, it might approach at 17 km/s, making it impossible to see it before it hits. It is also interesting how the debris hits and destroys absolutely everything except our protagonist astronauts and whatever spacecraft Stone happens to be in. 

This film is also an action fantasy film, like Armageddon. Very implausible things happen and we are supposed to believe them for the sake of entertainment, except that Gravity is portrayed as being a serious film. Instead of everything keeping blowing up, a very interesting and realistic story could have been built around the concept of escaping to ISS and then somehow managing to get rescued, with Kowalski, of course. Instead, ISS blows up and Stone escapes to Tiangong, which then blows up. In many ways, Armageddon was much more plausible - and it had official support from NASA, too.

This is the kind of semi-realistic science fiction that a couple of space-buff high school boys might come up with in their fantasies. In this case, they were given 55 million dollars to realize their fantasy and while the result is spectacular, it is also spectacularly implausible, which is a very bad thing for such an amicable attempt in original moviemaking. The packed and episodic script does not leave much room for reflection and more peaceful sequences where Stone might have come to terms with the situation. 

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