“Gravity” review: long version (like, REALLY long)

Using will power and lightning-quick reflexes — i.e., closing browser tabs before I read too far — I managed to avoid all spoilers before seeing Gravity. But this review will be very spoilery, so stop reading at the movie poster if you don’t want to know anything more about the film besides what you’ve already seen in the trailer.

Gravity is a rare film in today’s modern, technology-laden, jaded time: a movie so gorgeously put together, so seamless, and so believable in its portrayal of a zero-g environment, that even us geeky types were left asking, “How did they DO that??” I still have no idea how they filmed some of those scenes. If director Alfonso Cuarón went public and said, “We were sponsored by Elon Musk, who sent our entire film crew into orbit,” I’d almost believe it.

The science is great. Yes, there are some small (and a couple of big) inaccuracies, which have been beaten to death in the geek press, but they pale next to the many, many things the film got right. I’m as picky as they come, yet with a single exception, I was utterly lost in the story. Usually, I spend my time in films like this making snarky asides to my seat mate and chortling (or groaning) as the idiocies pile up. Then we spend the whole drive home demolishing the bad science. That’s part of the fun!

But I spent the entire running time of Gravity glued to the front of my seat, wide-eyed and occasionally open-mouthed, as the IMAX screen, the 3D filming, and the virtuoso camera work put me in space. And our drive home was peppered with comparisons of favorite moments, and comments like, “When he told her to sip her oxygen, I did it too.” (Both my wife and son reported that one.)

To say more requires specifics, so…here there be spoilers.

Gravity poster

Okay, everyone still here has either seen the movie or loves spoilers, yes? Then off we go.

The plot is surprisingly basic: astronaut crew encounters disaster and dwindles down to a single survivor, who must overcome all odds to make it home safely. And if that were all there were to the movie, I wouldn’t have been so wowed even with the glorious “you are in space” magic. But the screenplay gives our protagonist, Dr. Ryan Stone, a separate emotional journey beneath the physical one. It’s the dichotomy between the massive grandeur of the space disaster and the intimacy of Stone’s internal struggle that gives the film its soul. Both stories are about survival, but only one of them is about living.

Stone is a reluctant astronaut. She’s a medical engineer installing a scanner of her own design into the Hubble telescope, and underwent six months of rigorous training to prepare her for this mission. This set-up required my only conscious suspension of belief, for two reasons.

First, nobody in space is reluctant. Competition for those missions is fierce, and only the most motivated, capable, and fortunate candidates make it through to an actual trip to orbit. Scanner inventor or not, if Stone had not been rigorously qualified and acutely desirous of working in orbit, she’d have stayed home and trained someone else to install her scanner.

Second, this shouldn’t be the Hubble telescope. We know from the trailer that the astronauts end up at the International Space Station (ISS). But the ISS is nowhere near Hubble, in either altitude or orbital plane, and thus is not even close to feasible as a safe harbor in case of disaster. In fact, I put up a Wallpaper Monday back in March 2010 that referred to exactly this situation:

[T]oday’s Wallpaper Monday image is of a rare scene at the Kennedy Space Center: two space shuttles simultaneously ready for launch. Atlantis was the mission shuttle, assigned to make critical repairs to the Hubble telescope. Since the repair held so many possibilities for disaster (a higher orbit meaning more space junk, grappling with a space telescope and having the payload bay doors open for so long, five separate and protracted space walks, no access to the International Space Station in the event of an emergency), Endeavor was prepped for immediate launch in case a rescue was necessary.

Of course, we never had a space shuttle Explorer in our fleet, nor are our shuttles still flying, nor is there a large, multi-module Chinese space station in orbit near the ISS, so it’s clear that this film takes place in an alternate reality. Thus, I’m willing to accept that in the film’s reality, the three major pieces of space hardware are all within reach of each other, and orbital missions are so common that medical engineers who hate space can nevertheless find themselves on a spacewalk, installing their prototype scanners into a telescope.

From that point, the film works pretty hard to keep things realistic within its universe. We meet veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski zipping around in a jetpack, which looks a whole lot like a Manned Maneuvering Unit (which does exist) but which we’re told is a new design that Kowalski is testing. In the chitchat between the mission crew and Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris in a wonderful little Easter egg), Kowalski mentions his pleasure with the jetpack’s performance: he’s been out there tooling around for hours and used only 30% of his fuel. It’s a single line of dialogue, but it makes one of the most important plot points believable. If Kowalski still had 70% of his fuel remaining after hours of use, then he had enough to catch Stone and bring both of them to the ISS.

The biggest plot point of the whole film, the disaster that sets everything in motion, is not only believable but is in fact an issue of concern to NASA and all other space agencies. We humans have trashed every environment we’ve ever set foot in, and Earth’s orbit is no exception. It is full of crap, ranging from flecks of paint all the way up to defunct satellites. According to NASA:

More than 21,000 orbital debris larger than 10 cm are known to exist. The estimated population of particles between 1 and 10 cm in diameter is approximately 500,000. The number of particles smaller than 1 cm exceeds 100 million.

That is a boatload of junk, and it has already caused problems. On average, the ISS has to be moved once a year to avoid possible impact with larger debris. In 2009, a defunct Russian satellite slammed into an active American communications satellite, destroying both and tremendously increasing the debris field.

The same FAQ also says:

The average impact speed of orbital debris with another space object will be approximately 10 km/s. Consequently, collisions with even a small piece of debris will involve considerable energy.

Ten kilometers per second is 36,000 kilometers per hour (22,370 mph). Imagine getting hit with a bolt traveling that speed. For comparison, an average .357 Magnum bullet leaves a gun at a piddly 1500 kilometers per hour (950 mph). Ya gotta love NASA’s understatement — “considerable energy” translates to “like a freaking bomb.”

Back in 1978, NASA scientist Donald Kessler proposed the possibility of a cascading collision of space debris, in which the destruction of one large piece (such as a satellite) would form a cloud of debris which would then impact other pieces, forming more clouds which would result in more impacts of both debris and working satellites, eventually spiraling into a catastrophic result: a debris cloud so dense and unavoidable that humans would remain trapped on Earth, unable to get past our own trash. (Until we develop Star Trek shielding, that is.)

This concept came to be known as the Kessler syndrome, and that is exactly what happens in Gravity. After the shuttle mission is already well underway, the Russians blow up one of their spy satellites with a missile. At first this doesn’t seem to be a problem, but Mission Control soon comes back on the radio with really bad news: the satellite’s destruction has caused a runaway Kessler cascade, and some of the debris is hurtling straight toward the space shuttle. It’s time to abort the mission, as in, right NOW.

All of this takes place in the first few minutes of the film, which opens with the most gorgeous single tracking shot I can remember seeing in cinema. After some ominous text warning the audience about the unforgiving nature of space, and a just-this-side-of-tolerable orchestra crescendo coinciding with the movie’s title, the soundtrack goes utterly silent as the movie opens onto a shot of Earth, spinning beneath us. We hear only the radio chatter between Mission Control, the space shuttle Explorer, and the individual astronauts as we continue to watch the Earth spin. Gradually, a white dot gets larger and closer, revealing itself as the shuttle, its bay doors open and the Hubble telescope locked into place. (I’ll note here that the first time we can recognize the shuttle, it’s upside down — except, of course, there is no upside down in space. I thought that was a nice touch, and a good way of immediately upsetting audience expectations. We humans like our views right side up.)

The shuttle draws still closer, and now we see activity around it. Dr. Stone is installing her scanner while foot-strapped into the Canadarm (which, I noted, did not sport its iconic “Canada” label and flag — sorry, Canucks!). Kowalski flits around testing his jetpack, a third astronaut (who is surely wearing a red shirt beneath his EVA suit) is doing something in the payload bay, and the camera swoops and flies through the shot in a perfectly choreographed ballet that puts everything you need to see right in front of you just as it becomes important. Stories are swapped, Kowalski teases Stone about her stomach not agreeing with zero-g movement, and it all seems like another day at work in space, until the mission is aborted. As the music grows tense and the action goes into high speed, the shot is still uninterrupted, and remains so through the arrival of a cloud of debris barreling into the shuttle and the telescope, setting off an explosion of much larger debris as the Hubble and shuttle are both destroyed. The single shot continues as the Canadarm is blown off the shuttle, with Dr. Stone helplessly strapped into the end of it, and it stays on track as Stone finally releases herself and tumbles in an endless spin into the darkness. It is one of the longest tracking shots in cinematic history, and definitely the longest in 3D. It is spectacular. Honestly, I want to see the film again just for that shot.

Animation boss Chris deFaria had this to say about Alfonso Cuarón’s vision of the film:

Alfonso had an idea that he wanted the shots to be incredibly long, and I said, ‘How long?’ And he said he wanted the first shot to be really long. And I said, ‘You mean, 40 seconds?’ ‘No, 17 minutes.’ So it ends up the film only has 156 shots in the entire two-hour movie, many of them six, eight, 10 minutes long.

Anyone who has read this blog knows my hatred of the Queasy Cam, or shaky cam as some call it. I also hate jump cuts and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it editing. I loved Gravity for this reason. Cuarón knows this film is beautiful, and he wants us to soak it in, to revel in it. He gives us all the time in the world to do so, and it still isn’t enough. But it feels like an incredible luxury to have everything so crystal clear, so steady, so…there, floating in front of us and waiting for us to see every detail, even when the action is shocking, fast-paced, and killing us with tension and fright.

A shaky cam is used in just one scene, and because it is reserved for that scene alone, it makes an impact. It’s when Stone is finally making her bid for safety, descending through the atmosphere in a Shenzhou re-entry vehicle. Because she has left orbit and is in the turbulence of the atmosphere, the vehicle is violently shaking, and we see that in the way the control panel is bouncing and blurring in front of Stone’s eyes. It works perfectly — and is never used again. Thank you, Mr. Cuarón. Can you please give master classes to teach every other director in Hollywood the value of restraint? And I don’t just mean movie directors, I mean television too. (Even Downton Abbey uses a Queasy Cam! Why the hell?)

There are many other lovely touches in the filming, such as the debris floating in the destroyed shuttle (and later, the ISS), giving poignant clues to the dead crew members whom we never saw alive. A chess piece, a stuffed Marvin the Martian, a CD…all the things that living beings had thought important enough to bring up with them in their extremely weight-limited luggage, which are now nothing more than additional debris in the expanding field.

A few other wonderfully realistic details:

  • None of the explosions have sound or fire. They are true to the reality of a vacuum, and terrifying for that reason.
  • Similarly, when a hatch is opened and all of the air is replaced by vacuum, the sound is instantly cut off, only coming back as air is restored.
  • All sounds are perceived as the astronauts would hear (or feel) them.
  • The fire in the ISS behaves exactly as a fire would in zero gravity: it lies flat along the panel where it’s burning, rather than reaching out with flames. (Before it flashes into an explosion, that is.)
  • When Stone uses a fire extinguisher and forgets to brace herself, the propellant’s force smashes her into a bulkhead so hard that it briefly knocks her out. (I particularly enjoyed that detail because of the way it was later used in Stone’s final desperate gambit.)
  • The fluid, swimming movements of Stone through the ISS look exactly like the movements of astronauts we’ve seen in NASA videos. That’s another of those “I have no idea how they did that” bits.

There are details that aren’t quite so realistic, of course, but none of them interfered with my enjoyment, and I never felt that they “broke” the story. Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy fame, who initially made his blogging name by eviscerating science fiction films for their bad science, has a short list here. He also has a complaint about Kowalski sacrificing himself for Stone when it wasn’t necessary, but I’m not sure he’s right about that scene. He says their velocity relative to the ISS was zero, but since Stone’s foot continued to slip through the cables, I think there was still velocity involved. At any rate, despite Plait’s nitpicks, his takeaway was this:

Go see this flick. The science errors won’t bug you, and if they do, you need to pull your head out of your assumptions of what a movie should be. As a demonstration of craftsmanship, and as a viewing experience, Gravity is astonishing. I loved it, and I’ll be going to see it again.

One of my best friends, who is a real life female scientist, had one major complaint about the film. She cringed at the portrayal of Dr. Stone as “lesser than,” a female scientist who got nauseous in zero-g and didn’t know what to do when disaster struck. She felt it was sexist.

Now, I’m usually very alert for sexism (and in fact am teaching our son about the concept right now, an issue which came up when he asked for the latest Grand Theft Auto game and I had to say no), but I didn’t see it here. The movie takes pains to let us know that Stone is not a career astronaut; she’s a medical engineer who went through a special, intensive training to be up there, installing her invention. She’s a rookie in a field that she doesn’t even want to enter. As such, we wouldn’t expect her to be perfectly happy in zero-g, or calm and confident during a crisis of epic proportions which has just wiped out her entire crew. Her growth in confidence, as her native ingenuity asserts itself throughout the film, is a big part of the story.

It helps to know that Cuarón wrote his script for a female lead and defended that choice against considerable pressure. As he said at the July Comic Con:

When I finished the script, there were voices that were saying, “Well, we should change it to a male lead.” Obviously they were not powerful enough voices, because we got away with it. But the sad thing is that there is still that tendency.

Thus, besides thanking Cuarón for his eschewing of the Queasy Cam, we also owe him thanks for fighting the towering sexism of Hollywood.

Which brings us to Stone’s internal journey. Some reviewers have found her backstory “maudlin,” but I don’t agree. To me, maudlin is violins in the soundtrack and extensive, tearful discussion of the Tragic Event. We learn of Stone’s backstory with no soundtrack that I can remember, and a single, terse, emotionless sentence about her young daughter: “She fell and hit her head, and that was it.” And ever since then, Stone says, she just works, and then she gets in her car and drives, listening to the radio.

This is a woman who is dead on the inside. She’s surviving, but she’s not living.

The initial step of Stone’s internal journey is the second most beautiful shot of the film (the first being the opening shot of Earth, with the tiny shuttle slowly coming into view). After she makes it into the airlock of the ISS, literally running on carbon dioxide fumes, she rips off her helmet, struggles out of the EVA suit and succumbs to unconsciousness. Stripped to a minimum of clothing, she floats in the circular airlock in a fetal position. A cable floats behind her, looking like an umbilical cord, and even her hands are positioned like that of a fetus. It is a startlingly perfect impression of floating in the womb.

But before Stone can be reborn, she has to decide whether or not she even wants to live. She fights for it, right up until she runs out of options, and then she gives up. She’s found a radio signal, which turns out not to be from the Chinese space station but rather from Earth, complete with the sound of a dog barking in the background. The man on the radio chatters happily and sings to his baby, and Stone finally falls apart. She’s in her car again, listening to the radio, except this is her last drive. And since she’s going to die anyway, she might as well make it peaceful for herself, rather than waiting for the orbiting cloud of shrapnel to tear her apart.

Her attempt at suicide is interrupted by some tiny part of her brain that realizes she has one more option remaining, and presents it to her in the form of a hallucination of Kowalski. Waking from her oxygen-deprived stupor, Stone decides to live. I chuckled at her saying, “Matt, you’re a clever son of a bitch,” when in fact the vital clue came from her own subconscious. No one is saving Stone; she’s saving herself.

She makes it to the Chinese Shenzhou vehicle, where a Buddha statue sits on the control panel, providing a nice bit of punctuation to the metaphor. It’s appropriate that at this point, Stone finds acceptance, leaving her death or rebirth up to the universe. She has done all she can, and is now at peace with either possibility. She will die and see her daughter, or else she will live and have one hell of a story to tell. Either way, she’s ready.

The theme of rebirth continues through her violent descent to Earth and her final swim to the surface of the lake in which she landed, a painful birthing process. After collapsing on the muddy bank, she has no strength to stand (another realistic touch, but also one that serves the metaphor), and must crawl. Finally she gets to her feet and laughs — because she is alive, for the first time in the film.

I thought it was a perfect ending, and am willing to admit that my eyes were a little watery. But that might have been a reaction to the gorgeous filming, or perhaps the release of tension after a solid 90 minutes of being strung as tight as a piano wire. At any rate, I loved the metaphor of dying and being born again into a new life, and the fact that this metaphor was wrapped in such a staggering, spectacular package of realistic space action made it exponentially better.

As I wrote Saturday, I wish Lisboa weren’t so expensive to get to. I’d see this film again in a heartbeat, especially since it will never again be as good as it is right now. No matter how big your home TV is, it will not do justice to Cuarón’s vision. Even seeing it in 2D on a regular movie screen doesn’t do it justice. But if that’s your only available option, take it.

UPDATE: A Spanish friend just wrote to say that she saw it in 3D in Madrid, but in a regular theater, not IMAX. She found the 3D just as unpleasant as I usually do. Adding to the usual litany of bad 3D effects (distorted images at the edges of the screen, a much dimmer look overall, tired eyes), she was dealing with Spanish subtitles being thrown out in 3D, too. Ugh! Our film also had subtitles, but they were properly flat on the screen, offering no distraction to the film itself. And the IMAX 3D was flawless, allowing me to forget I was even wearing those ridiculous glasses. Which, I should point out, had lenses about three times the size of RealD glasses — the ones handed out in “regular” 3D theaters — and which may contribute more than I realized to the ease of visual processing. Also, I just learned that IMAX uses dual projectors while RealD uses only one, and then of course there’s the far larger, curved screen in IMAX that fills the field of vision.

But the biggest strike against RealD is that different theaters will have different equipment, so viewer experiences can vary radically from one place to the next. With top-of-the-line equipment, RealD is said to offer a bright, clear 3D experience. But not all theaters have that high-end gear, and the ones here in the Algarve certainly don’t. On the other hand, IMAX theaters must meet a rigorous set of standards, leading to a uniform experience. Right then, that’s it for me. IMAX it is, for anything in 3D. Otherwise I’m sticking with two dimensions.

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About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
This entry was posted in astronomy, culture. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to “Gravity” review: long version (like, REALLY long)

  1. Hick Crone says:

    I read this because I know I will never see the film so I was actively looking for spoilers. Thank you. I laughed aloud at your red shirt aside.

  2. Power Wench says:

    We just saw the movie today – went to Eugene for a matinee at the IMAX there. (Thanks, US Congress for the day off work.) I second the recommendation to see it in IMAX if at all possible – the visuals are glorious and really draw the viewer in. The 3-D served the film rather that the other way round, so it made an incredibly realistic experience. I couldn’t help flinching – more than once! – as debris came hurtling toward the camera. We had a couple of niggles, but they did not detract from the power of the story. My only question: when out of her suit skullcap, why wasn’t Ryan’s hair floating out in a nimbus rather than lying neatly against her head? Seems that could have been an easy CG fix.

    • oregon expat says:

      I’m glad you were able to make such good use of your Congressional unpaid holiday!

      As for the hair — that’s why Bullock sports a pixie cut in this film, rather than her usual long hair. If you look at videos of male astronauts on the ISS, their hair looks perfectly normal, because it’s not long enough to create that nimbus effect. My guess is that giving Dr. Stone short hair was far, far easier than CGI-ing a head of hair like Cady Coleman’s. So we’ll just have to believe that while Stone’s hair is slightly longer than the average male astronaut’s, it’s still tight on her head due to natural wave. (I’m going with it.)

  3. oregon expat says:

    Commenter Krista had troubles with WordPress accepting her comment, so I’ll paste it here for her:

    In an article in Rolling Stone, the director said this:
    “Sandy says, ‘She shouldn’t scream.’ I said, ‘Sandra, I would scream if I was there.’ She said, ‘Yes, but you’re a wimp.'”
    Article here: http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/stepping-into-the-void-the-magic-of-gravity-20130925
    Not sure when I will get to see it, but loved your review.

  4. CMrok93 says:

    Probably the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen since Avatar, which is really saying something. Good review.

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