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.

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