Photo: UCLA Planets

Bringing <I>Gravity</i> Back Down to Earth

by Aaron Hamburger Oct 25, 2013
What the movie’s mistakes about space travel tell us about the emptiness of contemporary life.

Call me a killjoy for not enjoying the new smash hit film Gravity — and believe me, plenty of my “friends” on Facebook already have when I made the mistake of expressing my opinion of the film there.

I’ll leave it to professional movie critics to debate the movie’s cinematic achievements, but I do think what this movie — which has been lauded for showing what it’s really like in space — gets wrong about the realities of space travel reveals something quite ugly about modern American society.

Here are just a few of Gravity’s errors:

  • The film shows several scenes of astronauts, wearing thick protective gloves, grabbing onto conveniently placed handles on various spacecraft — just in the nick of time! In fact, when real astronauts come back inside from spacewalks, which are exceedingly rare, and remove their thick padded gloves that don’t allow for much freedom of finger movement, their hands are raw, chapped, and stiff from the extremely cold temperatures. Not exactly conducive to grabbing stuff.
  • The film shows Sandra Bullock quickly removing her space uniform to reveal Ms. Bullock’s Hollywood-appropriate body in Hollywood-appropriate cute underwear. In fact, real astronauts wear a web of complex tubing under their spacesuits — not to mention bulky diapers. Even astronauts have to pee.
  • The film’s main characters pass the time making small talk and getting to know each other. In fact, real astronauts spend a great deal of time together in training before their missions, and by the time they’ve actually reached space, they’re already extremely well acquainted.
  • The film opens with George Clooney wearing a jetpack and cruising around the Hubble telescope for fun, all while trading corny jokes with Mission Control back on Earth. (Allegedly, this is “charming” to American audiences.) In fact, an astronaut wearing an MMU (manned maneuvering unit), the official term for such a jetpack, would not waste precious fuel in the way Clooney’s character does in the film.
  • The film’s main plot points focus on various spacecraft colliding and intersecting with each other in a few minutes or even seconds. In fact, a space rendezvous is an incredibly complex maneuver. For example, the docking of the space shuttle with the International Space Station took an entire day.
  • Sandra Bullock’s character, when faced with disaster, reverts to hysterical female mode. George Clooney’s character is confident, cool, and in command. In fact, real female astronauts are as plucky as their male counterparts (including the one Bullock consulted with to prepare for this film).

There are a host of other mistakes which have been listed in several articles1,2,3, but I won’t go on.

So why did the filmmakers behind Gravity choose to spin a space yarn rather than tell the truth? Imagine a film that got all these things right. Could it have been just as suspenseful, if not more, by showing the real challenges of traveling in space?

I can only speculate about the intentions of the filmmakers, but the film they produced is all too soothing in the way it fits the conventions of our time. It reassures audiences that at heart, women are still “ladies” and men are still “men.” Instead of making us think, it encourages us to feel afraid. Instead of investigating complexity, it encourages simplicity. And if the film’s mawkish dialogue is any evidence, it privileges dramatic visuals over the written word.

Equally as revealing as the mistakes in the movie are the ferociously defensive reactions (virtual and in-person) I’ve gotten from its fans when I’ve stated my opinion. I’ve been called a Debbie Downer, a member of a social media conspiracy against successful Hollywood movies, and an ignoramus who doesn’t understand how to suspend disbelief.

“Relax, it’s just a movie!” In other words, don’t ruin my fun. Don’t challenge my brain when I want to turn it off. Don’t bring me back to the days when people used to engage in lively discussions about art and could actually hold different opinions, and when having one’s own opinion mattered. Don’t wake me from this corporate-sponsored dream I’ve been living in and enjoying without having to think too much. By the way, have you seen the latest and last episode of The Shamelessly Breaking Mad Men Dead in the Homeland, with Dexter?

No, I haven’t. I like being stimulated by something other than a pumpkin spice latte. Who wants to join me?




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