George Clooney and his superpowered Manned Maneuvering Unit. Image source: Warner Bros.
WARNING! Spoilers abound! Do not read this article if you don't want to know what happens in the movie.
Maybe the government shutdown is getting to me, because on Day #5 of my furlough I determined to see the film. Because my day job is in the space program, I know that I will be asked by friends and the public what I thought of the movie.
So here we are on furlough Day #6 with a screed to note that my worst fears were affirmed.
I came at this film from a different angle than the typical moviegoer. In addition to being knowledgeable about human spaceflight, I dabbled part-time for many years as a professional writer. No, there's no Academy Award for Best Screenplay on my mantel — I don't even have a mantel — but I do have a knowledge of the basics.
One typical example of lazy screenwriting is the use of a deus ex machina. To quote from Wikipedia:
The Latin phrase deus ex machina, from deus (“a god”) + ex (“from”) + machina (“a device, a scaffolding, an artifice”), is a calque from the Greek “god from the machine” (ἀπὸ μηχανῆς θεός, apò mēkhanḗs theós). Such a device was referred to by Horace in his Ars Poetica, where he instructs poets that they must never resort to a “god from the machine” to resolve their plots. He was referring to the conventions of Greek tragedy, where a machine is used to bring actors playing gods onto the stage. The machine could be either a crane (mechane) used to lower actors from above, or a riser that brought actors up through a trapdoor.
To quote from The Guide to Literary Terms by Jack Lynch:
Few modern works feature deities suspended by wires from the ceiling, but the term deus ex machina is still used for cases where an author uses some improbable (and often clumsy) plot device to work his or her way out of a difficult situation. When the cavalry comes charging over the hill or when the impoverished hero is relieved by an unexpected inheritance, it's often called a deus ex machina.
This is my problem with Gravity.
Dei abound everywhere. And they are literally machina.
According to a Los Angeles Times story, writers Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón — father and son filmmakers — conceived the idea in 2009, “a story centered primarily on one character's adversities, which reflected her current professional strife.”
The duo's objective was to take what could be pure escapist fare and enhance it with themes of survival and finding meaning after loss. “That primal fear — of floating into the void — that's something that's a primal fear in daily life, the fear of losing ground,” Alfonso said.
We're on solid writing ground here, but the final script emphasizes the escapism while sacrificing plausibility.
I'll give the writers a pass on the conceit that the Space Shuttle program is still flying. It had been known since 2004 that the Shuttle would be retired once the International Space Station was completed, but not commonly known. I wouldn't expect the writers or their investors to abandon the project just because of that.
But from the opening title card, we are introduced to one writing cheat after another.
We're told in that card that the story takes place at 600 kilometers, or about 375 miles. Our characters are servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. So far, so good; that's about the orbital altitude for HST.
But while one astronaut, Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) services the telescope, crewmate Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) zips in circles around the Hubble and the orbiter Explorer using a futuristic version of the Manned Maneuvering Unit (an idea NASA abandoned long ago). We're told it's a prototype, hence its magical Buck Rogers features that will come in handy later in the tale. Deus #1.
Stone and Kowalski appear to be two of the most incompetent astronauts in NASA history. Apparently she was a medical doctor, but after six months of training she's now a bio-medical engineer and qualified to service the Hubble. Kowalski, supposedly a veteran, races around trying to break a Russian spacewalk record while blaring country music over the radio and jabbering tall tales with Mission Control in Houston. He's on the same channel as Stone, who finds all this very distracting. In the real world, any astronaut behaving so unprofessionally would be cashiered. But in Gravity this passes for character development.
A third astronaut named Sharif, doing a spacewalk in the orbiter's payload bay, plays bungee jumping with his tether. Another candidate for unemployment. In Star Trek, he would be a Redshirt.
Matt Kowalski uses his magical jetpack to tow Ryan Stone to the ISS. Image source: Warner Bros.
The incident that starts the peril is a supposed Russian anti-satellite test firing. Most likely inspired by the Chinese anti-satellite weapon test in 2007, we're to believe that Russia would actually carry out such a weapon test on a satellite in an orbit that could intersect the ISS, where it has cosmonauts on board. The narrative explains this away by saying the test had unintended consequences, with debris hitting other satellites that destroyed them and created more debris. At one point, we're told that most of the satellites in orbit have been damaged or destroyed.
Communications satellites such as the NASA TDRS constellation orbit at an altitude of about 22,000 miles. We're at 375 miles. According to a September 2013 presentation by Daniel Rasky of NASA's Emerging Commercial Space Office, 1,046 active satellites are in orbit — 432 at Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (about 22,000 miles), 73 in Medium Earth Orbit (1,200 miles to 22,000 miles), and 541 in Low Earth Orbit (below 1,200 miles).
To quote the opening of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:
“Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
So the notion of one anti-sat test wiping out most of the satellites orbiting the Earth to create a massive debris field wave is preposterous.
In any case, Armageddon (pun intended) is on its way, so our astronauts must seek shelter. Explorer, of course, is destroyed, along with the massively incompetent Sharif who got what was coming to him.
So where to go?
Using his magical jetpack with a nearly limitless supply of propellant, Kowalski tows Stone to the International Space Station. Deus #2.
The ISS normally orbits at an altitude of about 250 miles, so it would be more than 100 miles below Hubble, and that's assuming they were synchronized with each other. But they're not. HST orbits at an inclination of 28.5 degrees from the equator. ISS is at 51.6 degrees. So they're nowhere near each other.
Two Soyuz spacecraft are normally docked at ISS as emergency escape vehicles. One is gone; apparently the crew abandoned ship. The other is still docked, although its parachute prematurely deployed. Since Stone finds no bodies inside the ISS, I guess we assume only three crew members were on board. Perhaps ISS was in the middle of a crew rotation.
Due to plot complications, Kowalski is lost, leaving Stone on her own inside the badly damaged ISS. But before he drifts away, he concocts a plan for Stone to use the damaged Soyuz to ... wait for it ... fly to the Chinese Tiangong space station! Dei #3 and #4 fall into Dr. Stone's spacesuit lap.
If you're impressed by Dr. Stone's ability to fly Soyuz, wait until you see her operate a Shenzhou in a language she can't read. Image source: Warner Bros.
Stone tells us that she tested to fly Soyuz — and failed. But that's okay, she's going to fly Deus #3 to another station that happens to be in the same orbit as ISS and only 100 miles away.
This is where Gravity jumped the shark for me.
Not much is known in the West about the Tiangong space stations. The one shown in the film is nothing like the one in space now, which isn't even as big as the 1970s Skylab. The version in Gravity seems somewhat like the proposed Tiangong-3 that is projected for sometime in the next decade. Tiangong-1 is at an orbital inclination of 42.7 degrees so, again, nowhere near ISS.
Even if it's a fantasy Tiangong, Deus #4 has a Chinese version of the Soyuz called Shenzhou docked at its port. Why? Never explained. No crew are on board, and since the Chinese come and go in their Shenzhou they never have a backup attached.
In short ... Shenzhou has no reason to be there other than it's another deus for Dr. Stone.
As we might expect, when she enters Shenzhou all the buttons and labels are in Chinese. No problem. Even though Shenzhou is based on a mid-1990s Russian design that the Chinese have modified for their own use, she assumes the buttons must be the same. Pushing a few using trial and error, she manages to undock and re-enter the atmosphere.
When we left the theatre, even my wife said the movie was “stupid,” and she's usually far more forgiving about such things than I am.
Yes, Gravity is very pretty to look at. Yes, it's a new standard for computer generated imagery (CGI). Yes, its score rocks.
And, yes, I get that it's escapism and not to be taken seriously.
But in my opinion it's still lazy writing.
This continues a trend in filmmaking that I call the Transformers effect. Films no longer seem to require any kind of complicated plot or sublime character development. Just place one contrivance after another on screen with pretty effects and collect your money.
And that it has. According to the Los Angeles Times, Gravity had already earned $55.6 million heading into the weekend, making it the most financially successful October premiere in film history.
My greater concern is more philosophical.
Many space advocates are hoping that Gravity will inspire the public to take more of an interest in space, as happened after the movie Apollo 13.
That public interest was fleeting and did not translate into any sustainable congressional funding of the U.S. space program. Gravity won't either.
Is the only way to interest the public in space exploration to destroy something?
In Armageddon and Deep Impact, Shuttle-like vehicles were destroyed trying to save Earth from a massive asteroid impact. In Apollo 13, based on a true story, a crew were nearly killed and their craft lost. In Gravity, we destroy an orbiter, the Hubble Space Telescope, and two space stations for good measure.
Far more rare are films that inspire the public to support human space flight. The gold standard, in my opinion, is The Right Stuff although that was an exaggerated version of historical events from the late 1940s through early 1960s. It flopped at the box office. Contact, based on the Carl Sagan novel, cost about $90 million to make and worldwide earned about $170 million.
Gravity will make a huge profit for Warner Bros., but it will probably mislead the public into more misunderstandings about the human spaceflight programs. No, Hubble and ISS are not next to each other. No, the Shuttle isn't still flying. No, the Chinese don't have a robust space station nearby.
Will it do more harm than good for the cause of human spaceflight? That's the question I ponder as I await the end of the government shutdown and a recall from my furlough.
UPDATE October 31, 2013 — Several astronauts and scientists have weighed in with their thoughts on Gravity. Several chose to write articles:
Buzz Aldrin “Guest Review: Astronaut Buzz Aldrin on Gravity”
Tom Jones “Why Gravity is an Irresistable Force”
Chiao and Jones combined with astronomer Phil Plait to write for Entertainment Weekly the article, “Gravity: Panel of astro-experts on the science behind the film”
Michael Lopez-Alegria “Former ISS Commander Weighs In On Gravity”
Scott Parazynski “An Astronaut Fact-Checks Gravity”
Neil Degrasse Tyson “On the Critique of Science in Film”