Thursday, October 10, 2013

It Came From The Cineplex: Gravity

Gravity was written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (Children Of Men) and co-written by his son Jonas Cuaron.

Cuaron reportedly spent four years trying to bring the film to the screen. At one point Angelina Jolie was attached to the role of astronaut Ryan Stone, but dropped out when Warner Bros. balked at her $20 million asking price (!). Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively, Marion Cotillard and Natalie Portman were all considered as well before they settled on Sandra Bullock. I think they made the right choice. Bullock has a vulnerability that the brittle and icy Jolie lacks.

Robert Downey Jr. was set to play astronaut Matt Kowalski, but ultimately dropped out and was replaced by George Clooney.

So far it seems like half the viewers are praising the film for its realism while the rest are blasting it for lack of same.

Personally I thought it looked (and seemed) pretty darned realistic. Yes, I know that the Hubble and the International Space Station are in different orbits and that somehow makes it impossible to get from one to another. I know that you can't see the International and Chinese space stations in the sky at the same time. I definitely know that Ryan wouldn't be wearing just her skivvies (like Ripley in ALIEN) under her space suit. You can find even more mistakes with just a few seconds of googling.

And you know what? For once these little inaccuracies don't bother me. So what if it's not 100% scientifically accurate? Does it say anywhere on the poster that it's the most realistic space movie ever made? No. No it does not. So why's everyone so upset about it? Because it has the space shuttle in it? Does Star Wars get a pass because it has make-believe ships in it, but Gravity has to tow the accuracy line because it's got a real one?

It's a fictional story about astronauts in trouble, trying to survive the harsh environment of space. It's not a documentary. I'm willing to forgive them the occasional lapse in logic and realism (well, almost).

Besides, if they had made the movie completely accurate, the aforementioned scene in which Ryan strips off her spacesuit would have lasted about an hour, as that's how long it takes to get out of one of those things. Does anyone want to see Sandra Bullock struggling to get her boots off for sixty minutes? She'd also have been wearing a large adult diaper instead of her skimpy little underwear. I definitely don't need to see that!

OK, so you guys demand realism in your space movies? Here's some for you. Did you know that many astronauts who go on extended space walks experience something called "fingernail delamitation?" Due to the design of the pressurized space suit gloves, their fingernails sometimes peel right off. 

As you can imagine, this is quite painful. In order to avoid it, some astronauts have actually had their fingernails surgically removed before a mission so they don't peel off inside their gloves. Oy gevalt!

So… are you sure you want absolute realism in your space films?

I think I might have picked up on some subtle symbolism in the film. When Ryan finally makes it into the ISS, she sheds her space suit and then curls up into the fetal position, floating in the womb-like airlock for a few minutes.

Then at the end of the film after her escape pod splashes down in a lake, she literally crawls out of the water and onto the land and gasps for breath, like a fish that just evolved legs. Hmm. Now what could those images mean...

WEIGHTLESS SPOILERS AHEAD, INCLUDING THE DEATH OF A MAJOR CHARACTER! YOU'VE BEEN WARNED!

The Plot:
Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first space shuttle mission, along with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), who's about to retire. Disaster strikes when debris from a Russian satellite destroys the shuttle and sends Ryan spinning helplessly into the void. Kowalski, who's wearing a self-contained jetpack, rescues Ryan, but the two of them are now stranded in outer space without a ride home.

Their only hope for survival is to try and make it to the International Space Station before the orbiting debris comes back for another pass at them. Oh, and also before they run out of oxygen.

Pros:
• Spectacular visuals! I didn't watch the film in 3D because I loathe it with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns. Now that I've seen it though I'm kind of wishing I'd coughed up an extra three bucks and seen the 3D version.

• The film's full of Cuaron's patented super-long takes, for which he's famous (see Children Of Men). The opening scene lasts around fifteen minutes and appears to be one incredibly long, unbroken take. Impressive!

• For decades now filmmakers have been adding sound to space scenes and interstellar battles, saying they're too boring without it. Gravity features spectacular scenes of destruction with nary a peep out of the soundtrack, and you know what? It was just as exciting without sound. Seeing debris shred the space shuttle in absolute silence gave the scene an eerie, dreamlike quality that would have been missing if there'd been booming explosions batting the audience about the head.

• The film does a great job (for the most part) at simulating the weightlessness and physics of outer space. I especially liked the part where Ryan uses a fire extinguisher and is thrown backward across the room and into a bulkhead by the force of the spray.

Some are complaining that Sandra Bullock's hair doesn't behave the way it should in zero gravity, but that's probably for the best. Do you really want to watch her seemingly wearing a fright wig for two hours?

• Nice cameo by Ed Harris as the voice of Mission Control. Harris played a very similar role way back in Apollo 13.

• It was a nice touch at the end when Ryan has difficulty standing and walking on Earth after spending forty-some days in space.

Cons:
• At the very beginning of the film there's a title card describing the conditions of outer space in very basic terms. Things like the lack of oxygen, the wild fluctuations in temperature, etc. It ends with the line, "Life in space is impossible."

Is there anyone watching who doesn't already know this? Because if modern filmgoers need to be told that there's no air in space then we need to throw in the towel as a species. Well done, American education system!

• As I said above, I'm willing to forgive the film its occasional lapses in realism, except for one major blunder. I'm talking about the scene in which Matt Kowalski sacrifices himself because his momentum is pulling Ryan free of the ISS. That whole scene is just full of wrong.

Yes, Kowalski was shooting away at great speed, but he was tethered to Ryan, who was attached to the station. As soon as she stopped moving, he should have been jerked to a stop as well. His momentum would have been broken and Ryan could have pulled him back toward her with a light tug of his safety line.

And even if he did somehow break free, he still could have possibly saved himself. That jetpack he was wearing was empty so it was useless, right? Surely it wasn't welded to his suit. What if he unbuckled it and pushed himself away from it? Equal and opposite reaction and all that. If he pushed against the jetpack he'd be forced the opposite direction at the same velocity. He definitely wouldn't have been going very fast, but it might have given him another shot at grabbing onto the station.

I'm assuming they wanted Matt to die in order put doubt in the audiences' mind as to Ryan's survival. But if they absolutely had to kill him off they should have come up with a less boneheaded way for him to go.

• At one point in the film Ryan breaks down and sobs uncontrollably in the Russian escape craft. Her tears inexplicably detach from her face and float around the cabin.

I'm sure they were going for poetic rather than realistic here, but it just looked wrong. Generally when a person cries the tears stream down their face. Surface tension keeps the tears firmly stuck to your cheek. Does that not work in space? 

It seems like the only way this could work is if she cries with such force that her tears spray from her eyes like water from a garden hose. Who is she, Cathy?

• Twice during the film Ryan opens a space station airlock from the outside and is violently blown backward by the escaping air. Both times she barely manages to hold on to the hatch with one hand.

Does that really happen every time an astronaut wants to get back inside? Or did she just not have enough time to depressurize the airlock before opening it? Hopefully the latter.

Gravity is a tense and exciting outer space thrill ride that's full of incredible visuals and is reasonably realistic. I give it a B-.

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