We watched Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Gravity yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. Fantastic to watch — especially in 3-D — tensely edited and that rare combination, a vivid action flick that is also an actor’s movie. Sandra Bullock took us by the throat and gut and held on.
I hope that Cuarón will become a supremely powerful voice in Hollywood, so long as he stays away from the cocaine that has fried 90% of the directors and producers, whose few remaining neurons actually believe that mindless remakes and poisonous dystopias constitute “creativity.” Gravity is the kind of inspiration that might start changing that.
While watching Gravity, I succeeded yet again at my mental trick of filing away quibbles for later while enjoying a film. If you are either a scientist or a professional storytelly (I’m both) you have to do that or you’ll never enjoy another flick — and you’ll be murdered by the person sitting next to you in the theater! In this case the mental quarantine was easy. Lots to enjoy and the quibbles were bearable.
Still, you came here for insights and details and scientific cavils, so I won’t scrimp. Time to reach into that bag where I stuffed the carps and quibbles. Let’s pull them out and see if there are any real scientific boners. I hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson has offered a series of critical tweets on this matter. I have not read them yet, though I’ll look them over, after compiling the following list.
SPOILER AERT —
* The Hubble Telescope orbits WAY higher than the Space Station. Past repair missions could barely reach it. Should have made it a different-future scope. The premise situation is scientifically broken… and I don’t care.
* Two stations would not remain orbiting close to each other, even if they started with identical parameters. The orbits would precess apart. In fact, Gravity (the movie) makes Low Earth Orbit (LEO) seem about the size of Los Angeles County… but it’s way, way bigger. No fix for this. Just grin & bear it.
* The biggest flaw others have mentioned is that if both astronauts are at rest with respect to the ISS, one could not be pulling the other away from it. There is a fix! Clooney should have said “the station was set rotating by a hit. We’re at the end of a swinging bola. Let me go or you’ll be torn loose.” But to do that, the station should be shown slowly spinning. That would’ve done it.
(Side note: Clooney might have done what one of my characters did once. Taken off the now useless jet pack and thrown it away from the station, possibly emparting enough momentum to send himself toward it. Still, his fading away reminded me of Talby’s departure with the Phoenix Asteroids, in Dark Star. The dream sequence was perfectly done.
* Had I been advising, I’d have added a couple of lines about how Bullock would aim the Soyuz capsule NOT at the station but away from it. “Up to drift back…” starts the nursery rhyme taught to all students of orbital dynamics. If she had recited that, it would have looked and sounded cool to 99% and 1% would have nodded YESSSSSS!
* All right, the effects of debris were amplified maybe FOUR orders of magnitude. No possible combination of mere satellite parts could have done all that… and I couldn’t care less. It was sooooo cool.
* Still, they would not see clouds of approaching supersonic debris. Again, poetic license, but if it’s slow enough to identify stuff, then it is too slow to smash a space shuttle to bits. (Still, Clooney’s astronaut’s crisis mode descriptive monologue is exactly what a test pilot or “right stuff” astronaut is supposed to do. Well-portrayed.)
Nevertheless, let me editorialize: the debris problem in orbit is getting dire and it’s about time some attention was drawn to it. I portray something being done about it in the first chapter of my recent novel EXISTENCE. (You can see an image here.)
* I did wonder why Clooney and Bullock didn’t try to replenish oxygen from the shuttle, which would have plenty of undamaged gear lying about. Like spare oxygen packs? Clooney could have said seven words about that being impossible now. Ah well.
I’ve got a dozen others but they all fall into the realm of acceptable things I’d have suggested in a meeting… then shrugged when refused. What matters is that no kid learned something horribly dumb. It put techies and scientists and science in superb light.
Those who say “but it made space look dangerous!” are dolts. Of course it’s dangerous! That won’t deter the brave, it will attract them! Um, ever heard of 10,000 years of soldiers? This terrific film shows the great allure of the Final Frontier. Its explorers must bear the same skill and courage and honor of war… without the evil deeds or vile consequences.
Turning away from our petty bickerings. Looking outward. It’s exactly what we need.
== The quibbles of Neil deGrasse Tyson ==
All right, now I’ll look at Neil’s famous twitter jibes about the film.
No it should NOT have been named “Zero Gravity.” There’s plenty of gravity in orbit. It’s part of the problem. Bad buzzer sound for Neil on that one.
I agree that Sandra Bullock’s character servicing a telescope from her background as a medical doctor is iffy. Kind of like “Armageddon’s” rule: it is easier for oil drillers to learn to be astronauts than for astronauts to use a drill. Um, sure, right. Still, shrug it aside. Maybe she’s just an irreplaceable, polymath genius. That’s certainly consistent with the rest of the film, and more power to her.
Neil doesn’t glom onto my solution for why Clooney would be tugged away from ISS — because of rotation from an earlier hit.
Alas, his tweet about being unimpressed with zero-gee effects was just — well — kinda churlish. C’mon they were great!
Yes, Neil, all satcoms are not in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). But neither are they all at geosynchronous orbit (GEO). TDRSS and GPS and most of those used by NASA for LEO comms are much lower down… but still likely immune to a LEO level debris blast. True… folks would not “lose their Facebook.” Tyson got that buzzer-penalty right. Yellow flag! (But scaring folks about Facebook might get millions to agitate for space debris cleanup!)
Funny thing… I offered about twice as many real physics quibbles as Neil. (So there!) Still we both agreed, it’s a terrific flick! All of these little cavils only go to show what a large fraction of this hugely ambitious film Alfonso Cuarón and his team got right.
Resume being a forward-looking people who take seriously our duty to future generations. And who see the universe as beckoning us. Forward.