12 October 2013

FWS Movie Review: GRAVITY (2013)

Movies set in space are nothing new, having been around since 1902's  La Voyage dans la lune and continues onward with films like Elysium, Ender's Game, and Prometheus. Within the cinema genre of space films stuffed with aliens, massive space fleet battles, and glowing red laser beams of death, there are movies like Gravity. Gravity occupies a small niche, dramas set in outer space complete with scientific advisers making sure that the filmmakers portray the final frontier in all of dangerous glory. For over a year now, I've very excited about this film and last Thursday, I dragged my wife to this one during a recent date night (space is not her thing), and saw Gravity in regular 2D because my wife is also not a fan of 3D or IMAX. Gravity stars George Clooney, Sandra Bullock, Ed Harris (voice only), and is helmed by Children of Men director, Alfonso Cuaron, and follows in the footsteps of other realistic space rescue films like Apollo 13 (1995) and Marooned (1969).


The Plot
Gravity is set around 2014 or 2015, and unlike today, this alternate universe still has the NASA Shuttle fleet flying, along with a full-sized Chinese space station called "Tiangong", which is still in development to the extend seen in the film. The film opens with an American space shuttle mission (STS-157) to repair/upgrade the Hubble telescope and test a new NASA jetpack. On this mission is an legend in the astronaut corps, Matt Kowalski flying his last adventure in space (played by George Clooney) and first-time astronaut, Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone. Dr. Stone designed the scanning upgrade for the Hubble back on Earth, and was selected to head up the mission. While Dr. Stone works on the telescope, pilot Kowalski is testing the new thruster pack. During this repair, the Russians use a missile strike to destroy a failed spy satellite, causing a hail-storm of debris and the madness to ensure. Gravity's script draws on several real-life space mission. Specifically, STS-61 (1933), STS-82 (1997), STS-103 (1999), STS-109 (2002), STS-125 (2005) for the Hubble repair aspect. For the MMU-style thruster-pack, Gravity borrows from STS-41B and STS-41C (1984) and STS-51A (1985).

Intensity. That is best word to describe the experience of seeing this film. While the run time is 90 minutes, the film feels shorter due to rapid pace. My wife asked me when the credits rolled why the film was so short, then I looked at my watch...those ninety minutes had flown by! What a ride! Gravity is also the rare hard-science space movie that truly captured the wonder and terror of working and living in outer space. There is also a great deal of depth to the feeling of space, and that is the main setting for this film, the vastness of outer space, even with Earth below the actors.
In contrast to the emptiness of space is the crammed nature of the space station and space shuttle, that communicated more of the harsh realities of life in space. To create the world 600 kilometers above the Earth's surface, state-of-the-art SFX was used, and it is simply stunning. You feel transported to geosynchronous orbit, with all of the risks and terror. One element I respect the film-makers for is the lack of sound in this film. All hell can be breaking lose (and often does), but not one sound is heard beyond the closed world of the astronaut's spacesuit. Propelling this intensity is the tight script, the talented actors, and mountains of emotions. Gravity could be another winner for Sandra Bullock during award season. She is that good, and so is the rest of this jaw-dropping film.  

While Gravity is a beautiful, artful film that could win some major awards, it paid a high price for the intense tone throughout the ninety minutes. Much like FOX's 24Gravity is propelled by an intense survival story that is constructed to be thrilling. Gravity could suffer in repeat views by the viewer knowing the outcome of Dr. Stone's wild ride in geosynchronous orbit. I know that the times I've tried to go back, and watch 24 again, it is not as enjoyable...could Gravity be there same?  In order for Gravity's story to flow, some liberties have been taken on the part of the position of certain items in GSO, namely the space shuttle and the ISS, which in terms of Earth orbit, are not in the same neighborhood. For example, Kowalski's thruster-pack is based on the NASA MMU from the mid-1980's, and it never moved from prototype to standard issue. Then there is the position of the space shuttle Explorer, the ISS, and the Chinese space shuttle, which all appear to be in the same orbit...which they are not. When Sandra Bullock is seen out of her spacesuit, she is lacking the liquid cooling layer, and the spacesuit gloves are shown more flexible and useful than the real deal. Will you notice these if you are not an uber space geek like me or someone with a science degree? Most likely not.

Gravity was a date night movie for the wife and I, and it took some convicting to get her to see this a "space movie". Over dinner and a beer, my wife and I discussed the film. Even after an hour, she was still unsure if she liked or not. While she acknowledged the level of storytelling and the excellent quality of the director and SFX, she asked me a number of question during the film about how realistic X or Y was. Take in account, that my wife is a national merit scholar. In order to truly enjoy the highs and lows of Gravity, you need to understand the harsh realities of outer space and space travel. If you do not, as my wife pointed out, than you enjoy this movie less than others in the theaters currently. 

Should You See GRAVITY?
YES! If you are into the space program and/or thrillers, than go see this film, especially in 3D or even IMAX 3D, as it was intended by the movie-gods. Gravity is an amazing piece of film-making with a compelling powerful story to tell of human endurance and intelligence. Everyone is at the top of the game in Gravity, behind and in front of the camera. This is one of those movies that should be experienced in the theater. Go. See. This. Film. Today.


  1. Nice review! I saw this last night myself, and I agree it was a great ride, with some minor inaccuracies regarding orbits. I also noticed that at one point they're over China at night, but then a few minutes later they discuss the sunrise over what looks like the Nile, which wouldn't be the case if they're in a standard west-to-east orbit. My wife also enjoyed the film, even though she is not a space program follower.

    This is a movie worth seeing, and in 3D IMAX if possible.

    One correction to your review: they're in Low Earth Orbit (~150 miles), not Geosynchronous Orbit, which is 23,000 miles out.

  2. Sorry, I should have said around 350 miles (600 km), not 150 miles (I can't metric today).

  3. Thanks for the kind words and the heads up. I cannot believe I frakked that up! I might attempt to see GRAVITY in 3D IMAX, but it is unlikely...time and money. Glad you saw this one, movies like this need more attention so more realistic space films can be made.

  4. Christopher PhoenixOctober 17, 2013 at 4:41 PM

    Haven't seen GRAVITY yet... looks interesting, but the one sad thing is that the state of our crewed space program is in such an uninspiring state that even a "realistic" space movie has to invent an alternate present to endanger astronauts in space. There was a time when people were waiting for a future built and maintained by space shuttles, with everything from orbiting hotels to bases on Mars.

    Then again, there were people who said the shuttle was a flawed concept from the very beginning- to rickety and complex, to expensive and dangerous to ever achieve lower cost launch into orbit. I mean, assemble a stack of booster segments (O-rings!!), an external fuel tank, and the orbiter, launch it, drop off the boosters and later loose (and not recover) the ET, enter orbit, reenter and burn up all the tiles on the base of the orbiter, land, and basically reassemble the entire spacecraft with a new ET AND replace every tile on the bottom of the ship?

    An airliner to orbit is going to have to do better than that. Yet I can't help but miss the shuttle. It seemed like the first step toward a REAL reusable spacecraft, and now NASA is going all retro with Apollo-style disposable capsules and booster rockets- it feels like slipping back.

    Oh, by the way, given that we have been discussing both sublight and FTL starship engines lately, I think you might like to take a look at "Engines for the High Frontier" by Gerald D. Nordley at Lightspeed magazine. Mr. Nordley is a real astronautical engineer, and he gives a good discussion of the current state-of-the-art in thinking about advanced space engines for interstellar travel and their limitations- he explains the exponential nature of the rocket equation in the best nontechnical manner I've seen so far.


    Great article, check it out!!

  5. That is a great article! Thanks for the link. Wish that had been out when I wrote the sub-light propulsion blogpost. I need to add that site to my trolling list.
    Your observation about the lackluster manned space program is spot on! Imust say, that I should have add that comment to my review. It is sad in the day and age when we have wearable computers, but Mars is more distant than ever. Sad state of affairs.
    I have mixed emotions about the ORION space vehicle. The Shuttle was my space vehicle. I built models of it. Built Lego copies of it, and I've been several training mock-ups at the space centers around the US in the 1980's. When the shuttles were mothballed, I wept for the manned space program...and now we're using the Russian capsules! Wow...how time have changed for the days of the space race! One of these days, I'm going to write a blogpost about the old Soviet Space Shuttle, the Buran...because I want to.
    Thanks for the comment!

  6. the movies mommentum suggested a deeper plot but it never unfolded, unfortunately. i think it would have made for a better ending...

    after the debris hit they lost touch with houston. could not raech them at the iss or chinese station. didnt hear houston until the ending . the russians had destroyed their satellite which caused the chain reaction. this was dismissed as being the russians prerogative since they owned it. but then later we found the iss abandoned, and we found the chinese station abandoned and dying. i cannot fathom that a satellite destruction would not have been evaluated for potential collision , especially with concurrent activity in space by this crew, installing some new technology (spy gear perhaps?).coincidentally the debris fromthe russian satellit destroyed other satellites and then chain reacted in orbit with everything else of value in orbit. coincidence my ace! WAR! the russians started a war in space, and they were perhaps still in orbit in one of their shuttles (could have been used to bring clooney back into the picture if they wanted). houston couldnt respond because we were at war. the chinese station was abandoned, scuttled, because they too were now at war. bullock should have arrived safe on earth, only to find a burning wasteland of mushroom clouds, wishing she were still in space

  7. Odd thing is that satellite destruction does not happen, and yeah nothing like this has happened...yet. That ending is interesting, and would have been an nod to the title in some ways. I can see how that would happen...
    thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Everyone in for a unique cinematic ride against the backdrop of the abyss of outer space will have a fantastic time.

  9. If Cuarón's long-gestating thriller is perhaps not quite the masterpiece we were hoping for, it is still a thrilling and visually striking work.