Astronaut: Gravity Gets Me Down

The season's big movie is beautiful and deeply disturbing in equal measures, says someone in a position to know

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Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

I didn’t love Gravity. But I didn’t hate it. I love science-fiction movies, the more scientifically fictional the better. I am one of the original Trekkies, after all. So I am totally willing to suspend belief in — and the need to cling to — reality. The point, after all, is to escape to worlds of dreams and imagination, and I’m all over that. But in space movies intended to be more realistic, I’m a bit more … sensitive. Watching Gravity, I found myself cycling between appreciation and cringing, almost in time with the action.

My first take was to itemize the errors. The vehicles are in impossible orbits — wrong altitudes, wrong inclinations. (The communications satellites that create the debris field that wreaks all the havoc are actually 21,700 miles [35,000 km] higher than the shuttle’s orbit.) The backpack maneuvering unit has a nearly infinite amount of fuel and comes supercharged — but only until the plot requires it suddenly to run out. The astronauts slam their bodies into structures repeatedly and never even ding the suit or the helmet, much less injure any body parts that in real life would be ringing inside the suit. Space stations seem to retain pressure in their various modules despite coming apart at the seams. You can apparently close an outward opening hatch against exiting pressure with one hand. And with only six months of training (shuttle astronauts trained one to two years for a mission, especially one as complicated as a Hubble repair mission, and space-station astronauts train for three to four years), Sandra Bullock’s character can find the hatches on the international space station and the Chinese station and fly all of the necessary capsules. Well, who would not want these things in real spaceflight?

But I can almost forgive the liberal use of artistic license in violating the laws of physics because they got some things very right. The views of Earth and the sunrise, the lighting on Sandra Bullock’s face (light in space is so different from light in the atmosphere) — perfect. Her body positions inside the spacecraft, the astronauts’ tether protocol during the space walks, the breathing in the helmet, even the excruciatingly slow movement of the Soyuz undocking from the space station—spot on. These things made me happy.

The massive, fatal, horrific, total destruction of every single spacecraft? Not so much. I guess I take spacecraft destruction personally, movie or not. For me, it’s just too hard to watch. The scene in which debris is falling through the atmosphere, breaking up into streaking balls of white finality brought slamming back to mind the real-life image burned there forever of the last moments of the Columbia shuttle. And I had to look away. I wanted to ask, Who is going to like this movie, and why? If it’s because of all the destruction, that just makes me so sad I couldn’t face it. So I didn’t ask.

(MORE: Gravity Fact Check: What the Movie Gets Wrong)

I realized at that point that having lived and breathed the shuttle era, having flown to the space station, I was just too close to offer a truly objective review of Gravity from a plot standpoint. What I thought was amazing about the movie, however, was how it was made. All the spacecraft hardware, even the space suits and helmets, were digitally created. Maybe that’s why they looked so exact. The actors, all two of them, performed alone, in the total isolation of light and sound boxes. Sandra Bullock’s isolation in space was, for her, I’m certain, less acting than reality due to the seclusion she had to feel during filming, and it makes for some beautiful moments in the movie.

Gravity, I believe, was made as an exercise in digital creativity. The actors were chosen because they are A listers. The landscape was chosen because it makes for great scenery. You could have set the movie underwater, but then the chaos would not have been so … chaotic. You could have made it on a mountain, but that’s been done. A lot. So: space.

(PHOTOS: Window on Infinity: Pictures From Space)

The movie subtly hints at our ingrained need to reach beyond the home planet and, at the same time, always return. (SPOILER ALERT FOR THE REST OF THIS PARAGRAPH.) When Sandra Bullock’s character at last lands in the water, she violates a very basic rule of survival and immediately flings open the hatch of what appeared to be a nonleaking capsule, flooding the vehicle and nearly drowning herself. But after she fought for life and breath in space, alone, I can see her finally getting to Earth — air-rich mother Earth — and having to open the hatch or die trying. I can actually see that.

The trailers are misleading in a way. They string together 40 seconds of the most destructive, flash-framed, violent, and did I mention destructive moments from the film, coupled with heart pounding, insistent crescendos of music, leaving you gasping for breath and blindly reaching for something to hold on to. But they downplayed what I felt was a significant thread in the film. George Clooney’s character, in a rare and fleeting quiet moment says to Sandra’s character, “Beautiful, don’t you think?” And the scene is the sunrise in space. Hold on to that.

MORE: Space Race 2013: Who’s Up, Who’s Down, Who’s Going Nowhere

37 comments
mosesgunn
mosesgunn

All you armchair astronauts out there be prepared for a shock...no movie will EVER depict space like a real astronaut would experience. If the purpose of you going to a hollywood movie is to see whether or not the movie depicts the real life of an astronaut then you wasted your money. I get so tired of reading these stories about how the real professionals were so disappointed because the fictional story didnt reflect reality to satisfy their own sensibilities.  My advice for that astronaut is to either get a life or lock yourself in your capsule and go back into space.

fish6allstar
fish6allstar

My only complaint about this article is the part about her flinging open the hatch while she is floating in the water. The capsule was filling up with smoke from the fire (which the film made very obvious) and she would have suffocated unless she opened the hatch..... that is why she opened it.

gafromca
gafromca

Forget the physics.  Don't astronauts have to wear diapers while in a spacesuit?  Her cute little black shorts might work while in the shuttle or space station, but not on a spacewalk.  Or am I mistaken?

I won't go into her sleek, freshly shaven legs, but at least she wasn't wearing a ton of makeup!

ToddClemmer
ToddClemmer

You self-absorbed morons are arguing with an astronaut over what happens in space.  You understand this correct?

PaulYorkAnimalRights
PaulYorkAnimalRights

The film helps deepen appreciation for "Mother Earth", our home. There are some beautiful shots of the Earth from space, as well as a lot of suspense and action. It made me appreciate being able to stand on the Earth and breathe the air. If more of us had this basic appreciation for life on this planet, it would not be trashed with such disregard. So, ultimately it can be seen as a pro-environment film, though all but a few moments take place place in outer space. The vast lifeless loneliness of space, and its deadliness to us fragile beings, should help make us more appreciative of Earth -- and our fellow Earthlings, who are also vulnerable. Earth is the only home we have. It is impossible to relocate. Right now, humanity is destroying the conditions that make life possible, and causing a mass extinction of species. This is a crime beyond imagining. When astronauts landed on the moon the photo they too of the Earth, against the vastness of space, helped inspire the environmental movement. The highest calling of art, religion, or any other manifestation of culture, is to awaken within us that deep sort of appreciation for life. This film succeeds in doing that by showing how inhospitable it is for us beyond this world. As for the technical flaws, I am willing to overlook them, though I certainly appreciate knowing about them from an actual astronaut.

TonyRusi
TonyRusi

Dear Marsha Marsha Marsha!

I met you at Bigelow aerospace in 2003, and enjoyed your cookies! We need your advice in how to get visibility for the Space Mirror Concept of Lew Fraas's within the NASA bureaucracy!

We could put up space mirrors for 113 million that is two new Falcon 9 v1.1 flights. The mirrors are three football fields in diameter and 20 nanometers thick. They weigh less than 3 pounds on earth. There will be 662 of these mirrors in 650 mile high orbit and spinning to stay perfectly flat. A set of cubesat lasers below in sun synchronous orbit, will use laser light to reposition each mirror every six minutes, from one solar farm on the ground to the next one. They will be able to work together and all point at fourty different solar farms located all around the world already, at dawn and dusk when the natural sunlight is going to zero. The mirrors provide an extra Four hours of noon strength sun in the early morning and at sunset. They DOUBLE the amount of power collected everyday at ALL these 40 solar farms all over the globe! They make 16 billion dollars worth of extra clean energy every year! This is a way to make our tax payer investment in NASA finally pay off! We can eliminate the 17 trillion dollar national debt and wean the world off of fossil fuels at the same time. http://jxcrystals.com/publications/Mirrors_in_Dawn_Dusk_Orbit_AIAA_Tech_Conf_Final_2013.pdf

DavidAmesHolland
DavidAmesHolland

I was down with the realism of it, until the debris field came along the first time.  There was way too much debris, and too much destruction for it to be convincing.  At that point I just said, "OK, forget the mathematics of probability and just enjoy the story!"

Mikzy
Mikzy

I knew going in that it would not be as accurate as it should be, but it didn't stop me from watching the film. I enjoyed it for what it was, despite the movie's failures. This movie is meant to be seen in 3D, and meant to be seen in theatres. Movies like this aren't meant to be "nearly" real with a twinge of fantasy and escapism. I think we as humans need to escape sometimes in our lives; some of us more than others.

berger
berger

When telling a friend my opinion of the movie, I told him it was good.. if he ignored all the laws of physics that were blatantly disregarded-- the plot line itself could not possibly even happen, as Ms Ivins pointed out.  As a physicist, I notice the inconsistencies and find them very distracting.  But, the general public is not well educated in physics and astronomy or know the issues, so to them, it was a great movie.

I don't understand why people are getting upset at Ms Ivins' article.  It was an opportunity to become educated in the real experience of going to space, and I enjoyed it.  The people who got offended are proudly displaying their ignorance, for whatever reason.

LauraSteel
LauraSteel

The movie is a fantasy, as much a fiction as Star Trek. So many close calls, so many last-second miracles. This story could never happen in our universe. But the film is beautiful, and ultimately exhilarating.

robtlemmon
robtlemmon

Ms Ivins - did you notice she popped the hatch on the landing craft because it was on fire and filling with smoke?  i mean, i understand the rest of your objections (scientific/factual errors), but you seem to be saying she should have stayed in the capsule while it burned.  

kepeirce
kepeirce

Hi Ms. Ivins. I loved your review. I was listening to an NPR segment a couple years ago that replayed an interview with Ms. McAuliffe's right after she won her spot on Challenger. It was tear jerking, knowing what would happen in only a few short months. Though I was too young to have witnessed either event, I can imagine how impact those images at the end of Gravity could be. I agree that one of the movie's greatest strengths was Cuaron's carefully planned shots. Bullock's closeups were highly impactful.

On a scientific note I was wondering, just for my own curiosity, how realistic was Bullock's reentry? I believe I read somewhere that reentry has to occur at a fairly specific angle in order to prevent burning up. With her capsule spinning out of control it seemed she spent too much time making her reentry that the capsule's shields would have failed... This is not a critique on the film, I am just genuinely curious.

ShaunMacNeil
ShaunMacNeil

I saw it.  It was good.  Very good.  Maybe a 7 out of 10.  Personally, I didn't go to the movie so that I could pass a physics test afterward... but I appreciate Ms. Ivins observations.  Nevertheless, I'm Glad I read this review AFTER I saw the movie. 

Naveed
Naveed

There are two very interesting observations i could make here: one, there are obviously people hiding in the shadows who suddenly pounce out to the aid of Ms Ivins as soon as someone gives the slightest hint of criticizing her write up. secondly, well, the whole thread is very amusing given that its turned into a skirmish between how real or unreal the movie is (rather than actually being what the story it tells) People have made movies of travelling to the outer reaches of space as bounty hunters (the awesome SERENITY) or as explorers (Star Trek) or even researchers looking for deeper answers (PROMETHEUS) i guess we could call upon a whole panel of scientists and experts who could break down these movies scene by scene and make a spectacle out of them. just like my friend the IT expert said, anything that seems to defy the laws of computer science (so to speak) makes one cringe if you are in the same field. but thats the point, movies always take liberty with their material - whether they are based on fiction or true events. the sole reason for this is to entertain the audience. my mother has a general dislike for fiction(thriller, sci fi or even medieval) saying it is too far "away from reality" well that is what dreams are made of. reality is not what audiences want to watch in cinemas - thats the thing they have run away from and come to the theater for.


Gravity is a human drama hidden under the premise of being stranded in space. audiences like a challenge, something unique. something that they havent seen before something that makes them think "now how will they get out of this one?". the drama part covers Sandra's past and the ghosts that haunt her and how she needs to come to terms with them when the chips are (all) down . as an audience and intended recipient of this movie, i thoroughly enjoyed it and wouldnt mind watching it again. the destruction sequences are both horrific and poetic when you see how there is no sound and one cant know of the impending doom if he/she is not looking in that general direction. then there is the very thought of being stranded somewhere where no one can hear you scream. i believe the movie makers achieved what they went out to achieve (i would recall DESCENT at this point). 

one can clearly understand Ms Ivins' reaction (and aversion) on seeing the explosions and destruction and trying to appreciate and hold on the more beautiful visuals- but we must understand on a stage, a story teller's objective is to show beauty in every aspect of the story, and audience is required to search for it.

lets all be happy and enjoy the show :)


stonecutter0602
stonecutter0602

Terrific review, Ms. Ivins. Without yet seeing this movie, I'm certain your assessment is accurate: it's primarily an exercise in digital creativity. It follows the recent "galactic" success of "Avatar", an effort to follow the global market demand for combining human drama with SOTA digital wizardry.  Anyone in this comment stream who objects to your observations, let alone criticizes you for making them, is either a moron or a fool (there is a difference).  When I do see this film, and hopefully I will view it in IMAX for its greatest effect, I'll remember your input well.  Roger Ebert couldn't have done better on this one!

DennisScottMoore
DennisScottMoore

All I know is....as long as Russell Crowe doesn't show up singing......I'll be happy.    3D glasses, a large lemonade with LOTS of ice & a medium popcorn drenched in hot yellow grease PLEASE!   

Netmolina
Netmolina

You were supposed to be entertained honey. Better stick to your science books.

LindaSimeone
LindaSimeone

Beautiful  constructive commentary by Marsha Ivins. I cannot wait to see "Gravity" and respect Ms. Ivins' input having actually "walked the walk" and "talked the talk" - I am sure some of the scenes were painful, particularly reminders of the doomed Columbia shuttle. However, Hollywood is reknown for turning the mundane or not so mundate, historical dramas included into something screen worthy. It's all about ticket sales, publicity and marketing. Sometimes accuracy or details are "gently nudged"  aside for the "sake of the story." Director James Cameron went to painstaking lengths to assure film goers that everything was to the Nth correct while making "Titanic" -- and he did a beautiful job. Yet, I had to laugh while watching him on a National Geographic TV documentary when he found out by the experts that the ship's stern rose "so much feet" out of the water and Cameron was off by maybe a few degrees -- he had a melt down!  Who knew that he was off by so many feet.  Who cares.  it was still a very compelling and wonderfully made entertaining film.  It's okay, the audience does not need to know  all of the details. . Same with "Gravity" -- I am sure the audience will be enthralled with the results and thoroughly entertained.

moderate01
moderate01

With all due respect to someone who has accomplished what few have ever accomplished, certainly more than I ever will, someone should introduce Ms. Ivins to that most important of all cinema concepts, the one in which all movies operate in order to be entertaining and not a mere reflection of reality.  That is the cinematic principle of "suspension of disbelief".  "Suspension of disbelief" allows for the good guys to always be great shots and never run out of bullets while the bad guys can't hit the side of a barn and empty their clips after firing 6 rounds.  I use that example because how many bullets are in a six-shooter is universally well known fact, yet audiences let it slide because they prefer to be entertained.  Far fewer people know the orbits of communication satellites vs. the space station.  Just like we did not complain when the film "Braveheart" portrayed William Wallace's greatest battle victory as taking place in an open field instead of on the Stirling Bridge as it did in real history, we don't really care about the accuracies or lack thereof in "Gravity".  The movie is NOT a space documentary, nor is it a fictionalized account of a real event.  It is a work of imagination and a personal drama about the lives of it's main characters.  Underwater - no.  A mountain - no.  Those would not even be close substitutes.  No, only the blank canvas of space - and  to the vast majority of humans, outer space is still a blank and mysterious canvas - could give the writers enough space (no pun intended) in which to allow Sandra Bullock's character, Ryan Stone, to project her deepest fears and anxieties' about her life in a way that lets the audience feel those same fears and anxieties'.

notLostInSpace
notLostInSpace

Thank you Ms Ivins, you have confirmed what I thought I knew. 

Every time I see the trailer I cringe.  I say to myself (having no knowledge of how it will end), FOR THIS MOVIE TO BE PLAUSIBLE, it is has to be a two hour story where she dies (maybe with perhaps flashbacks of her family?) because death is really the only possible outcome!  Astronauts know the risks, and most people with a modest amount of intelligence also, that there is no rescue (or much life expectancy) for a stranded astronaut who has become untethered, radically, with the ship they were on destroyed, with nowhere close to go to (you could argue that two ships docking, one blowing up, gives an escape possibility (still low, you still have to get there, and there has to be adequate oxygen, fuel, etc.).  SPOILER ALERT (if you read the whole article above then I will spoil nothing further, but if you didn't read it then you should stop here now) For her to go to another space station somehow, is just absurd.  Sandra makes ridiculous movies (in Blind Side she teaches coaches how to teach technique to her adopted football player, really now, and wasn't it her movie Speed where she survives an absurd combination of driving dangers maintaining a certain speed in a vehicle she wouldn't even know how to drive....heck, if she can drive a bus she can drive a space ship, or so Hollywood tells us!). 

Gilker
Gilker

While I understand Ms Ivins visceral distaste for even semi-realistic depictions of spacecraft destruction, I also recognize that the nature of any narrative - especially science fiction - demands conflict and nothing generates conflict more effectively than the threat of impending destruction.  A NASA-trained astronaut is probably the best critic for technical points and the worst for dramatic.

berryls
berryls

This is the second review of this movie from a member of the space-program that I have read.  The other was more bothered by the distance in the orbits of the various space stations, and the impossibility of all of them being hit by the same event.

I think it is good to get their views.  I myself work in IT, and can't watch a film that has an incorrect IT based plot, so I'm actually impressed that they both enjoyed the movie with only slight objections.

byst1nder
byst1nder

Is Gravity a Documentary of Science Fiction movie? We should be aghast and deplore the Director / Producer / Writer for creating a Documentary film that bends the truth. But as a Science Fiction, why should we care if they decided to (gasp) have unrealistic plots  or errors? They're meant for us to live in a fantasy, detaching disbelief as anything can happen. 


AlanSmith
AlanSmith

Not to get technical... but the inclination change and the Hohmann transfer alone would require a minimum delta-V of 1.6 km/s. In a worst-case scenario, it could take another 8-9 km/s (depending on the relative right angle of ascending node). Considering entire rockets launch with only about 7-12 km/s of delta-v,  I concurr that it is very impossible to reach the ISS with an EVA pack (which only has about 30 m/s delta-v), 

EddieTrimarchi
EddieTrimarchi

I agree wholeheartedly. For me, Science Fiction really only works when it's based on the premise that what you are seeing is a possible reality.

I also pick apart Sci-Fi movies with unbelievable or incoherent content. It's not deliberate but flows fairly naturally. I would much rather not do it and occasionally I don't. Like during 2001, 2010, Apollo 13, Contact, etc x 2. The better the portrayal, the greater the likelihood of becoming a Sci-Fi Classic compared with just another movie labelled 'SciFi'. And there's been plenty of the latter.

I haven't seen it yet but I'm looking forward to it and I'll probably enjoy it more now that I've been fore-warned!

Thanks for the refreshingly honest perspective.

SuzetteJolie
SuzetteJolie

Ms. Ivins; 

Really, this is just a movie!   What is your purpose here and why do you need to tell us all this?  Allow audiences to go enjoy the film.  It is just that, a film.  A Hollywood space thriller.  There were NASA astronauts involved with this and they have spoken highly of this great film.  Were you hired to write this?  At any rate, you are not a film critic and even though you may have spent time in space, you have never spent time directing a movie, or making one.  It is the same as having a film director review and analyze a space mission.   I doubt he would have the expertise to diagnose the problems with the mission or the hardware.   You have made yourself look super silly.

oxyastro
oxyastro

@berger Really? I'd say the movie's technical strength was in its loyalty to the fundamental laws of physics. You could give a lecture on Newton's Laws with this movie. Two masses held together by a tether, the effect of thrust on a weightless object... I was really excited to see such a abnormally good rendition of microgravity mechanics for a movie. 

The only major inconsistencies definitely had to do with hopping from the Shuttle and Hubble Telescope to the ISS and to the Chinese Station, all which happened to be within visual distance of eachother. But I can excuse that and imagine that this happened in an alternate universe where there is much closer international collaboration and we decided to put all of our spacecraft within a few hundred kilometers of eachother in orbit for some reason. Maybe.

And of course, yes, Kowalski's "jet pack" seemed to have just enough fuel to make it a convenient plot point. The real "jet pack" it is based on only had about 24 m/s of delta v. It would have required at least 13,000 m/s of delta v JUST to do an orbital plane change to go from the Hubble to the ISS. That's not even including any required altitude changes. The jet pack would have supplied less than 0.2% of the required energy for the plane change.

If you're one to get so distracted with the inconsistencies of a movie which gets more things right than any other fictional depictions of space, then you are either intentionally looking for flaws or you need to lighten up. Whether you're actually a physicist or not, don't take yourself too seriously.

StigCarlsson
StigCarlsson

@Netmolina, Marsha was invited to write an Opinion piece about the film. You, on the other hand wasn't invited to write condescending comments about her, Honey...

RobertAllen
RobertAllen

@moderate01

@moderate01 Seriously, you would waste Ms Ivins time and rare expertise by demanding that she NOT compare and contrast the Hollywood experience and poetic license with her authentic experience and knowledge?  I cannot even imagine who would want such a thing, much less write a 500 word manifesto expressing it!  Unless of course you were PAID to do so .. let me guess, you work for Warner Brothers?

RobertAllen
RobertAllen

@byst1nder You do not seem to have respect for the difference between Fantasy and Science Fiction.  If this is a Fantasy, it should be marketed as such.   Science Fiction, unlike Fantasy, is EXPECTED to not violate any known scientific principles, though it is free and encouraged to speculate on the unknown. That is the very definition of Science Fiction.

teviet
teviet

@EddieTrimarchi Yep, the space scenes in 2001 were almost completely 100% accurate, and this from a time without CGI, less than 7 years after the first manned spaceflight and 3 years after the first EVA.  You could split-screen the antenna repair sequence in 2001 with NASA Hubble servicing footage and not see any real difference.

The only place suspension of disbelief could be required is in the magic stargate sequence, but, after all, a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

goblue562
goblue562

@SuzetteJolie I imagine that you are a fabulous movie critic.  I can't wait to read your review.   

Oh... wait.. .what?    You're not a published movie critic?  Were you hired to snipe at her?  


I think that the super silliness doesn't reside in the article, but rather in your comment.

RobertAllen
RobertAllen

@SuzetteJolie  She was published in a major magazine and was paid for her expertise and ability to express it in an interesting manner. 

"why do you need to tell us all this"?  Wow, that is precisely what the Church said to Copernicus.  What was YOUR motivation? 

Halrloprillalar
Halrloprillalar

@SuzetteJolie I think it's rather silly of YOU to call someone with 1300 of space time logged as 'silly'. She never said YOU shouldn't enjoy the film, just pointed out the reality flaws and her personal views of it (for which there is a disclaimer, by the way). Your bitterness towards what is essentially an op-ed (not a review) just strikes me as willful ignorance. 

Personally I think it's awesome to hear an actual astronaut talk about a (realistically intended) space movie.

GaryRMcCray
GaryRMcCray

@SuzetteJolie 

I actually think it is really refreshing to have a movie like this reviewed by a technical expert instead of a giant ego with an absurd vocabulary who thinks more of themselves than anybody else on the planet.

In a technical movie, one of the things that it hangs on is the technical accuracy of it's portrayal and if that is wrong, then that detracts from it.

In our daily serialized night time television, we are continually expected to believe it is perfectly normal for characters to commit mayhem and witness personal horror one minute and then to be passionately embracing like nothing had happened the next.

At least here they went to a lot of trouble to get a significant amount of it right.

Too me it doesn't sound like much fun and the real example of 2 divers stranded on a reef in the middle of the ocean in Australia while their dive boat sailed home without them sounds about as inviting.

But then this movie isn't about having fun.

KennethTaylor
KennethTaylor

I don't know..., If that is really her in the picture, she might.