RogerBW's Blog

Gravity 22 March 2023

2013 science fiction, dir. Alfonso Cuarón, Sandra Bullock, George Clooney; IMDb / allmovie. Kessler syndrome is not your friend.

I didn't see this film as it was released, on a huge immersive IMAX® screen, and I think that may have been a problem. Specifically, while I loved the visuals, particularly in the first part of the film, I was never bludgeoned by them out of my critical faculties into forgetting what I know about actual space operations. And an awful lot of this is just plainly and blatantly wrong.

A non-SF-reader might well say "well, it needs to be like that for the story to work". But if I wrote a romantic comedy in which, to make the story work, gravity suddenly switched off and people were floating out of their beds, and nobody regarded this as in any way unusual, would that be considered good storytelling? It's not a thing that happens in the real world; it's not a thing that anyone expects; it's not a thing you get to do and say that your story is realistic.

But actually my first irk was at a point of terminology. I understand that you need to explain to the audience what Kessler syndrome is, because they aren't space geeks like me. But the way this would happen is that experienced astronaut A says to B "we've got a Kessler cascade going on", and then newbie C would say "what's that then", and then A and B could explain it while they were making their doomed attempts to survive. It completely broke my immersion to hear these professionals never mentioning the specific term that describes this exact situation.

So yeah, you don't get to casually jetpack… actually, you don't get to casually jetpack at all. Fine, the thing in the film is a new development that has vastly more performance than the SAFER rig it visually resembles. But astronauts don't get to go joyriding; if they're in space at all, it's with a very tight schedule to do specific tasks, which might indeed include "evaluate the jetpack" but would be specified in minute-by-minute detail.

But no, even with Super Jetpack rather than the one astronaut ten feet per second of SAFER, you don't get to fly from Hubble to the ISS. During the final Hubble repair mission in 2009, there wasn't enough delta-V available to the orbiter to abort to the ISS in case of damage that would prevent re-entry, and as a result a second shuttle was readied on the ground as a lifeboat. (I've read a comment from the film's scientific advisor that he raised this point and got Cuarón to change it to an invented space telescope instead, presumably in a different orbit – but in the print I saw everyone clearly said "Hubble".)

And… you don't point at where you're going. Now I'll admit that I'm in a bit of an unusual position here; when I first played Orbiter, a realistic space-flight simulator, I found that I had a surprising intuition for how orbital systems work, and which way you need to apply thrust in order to reshape your orbit to get from here to over there. The basic problem, though, is that we never perceive all these events as happening at thousands of miles per hour; "here" and "over there" always feel as though they're static places that just happen to be in space, not the constantly changing positions that they are even in the idealised reality in which low earth orbits are stable. And if you know this, everything feels just a bit wrong.

I'm supposed to be caught up in the admittedly gorgeous environment, and in the personal drama, so that I don't notice this. And then… look, I can see you have to kill the experienced astronaut so that the newbie has do to everything on her own. (And that's also why you knocked out the TDRS communications birds even though they're way outside the LEO zone that's supposed to be where the damage is happening.) But when they hit the ISS, they're dangling, in classic "let's invoke the audience's fear of falling" style, and once you've come to a stop in that situation there really is nothing pulling you away any more. And this could have been done better by making it realistic: the jet pack runs out of fuel, they're going to miss the ISS, so Kowalsky untethers and pushes Stone so that her course intersects it and she can grab on. At least as dramatic, because he still gets to do his dying speech, and actually plausible.

After that, the shot where Stone (having broken many world records for getting out of a hard pressure suit) floats in the classic embryo pose, complete with a random cable substituting for the umbilical cord, just irked me. Yeah, we get it, you're doing symbolism. Gosh wow.

On the other hand… the whole personal tragedy angle, the internal debate between "just give up now" versus "carry on"… actually did work for me. I'm bored with generic "woman spurred to action by death of child" but in this specific case I thought it held together. Honestly I could have done with more of that and less of the unreasonable space action.

Obviously I'm not the mainstream audience (I never am). But if you're going to go to the trouble of saying "actual space shuttle" and "actual telescope" rather than made-up ones, you're trying to appeal to people like me who know this stuff, and it's a hell of a let-down when you reveal not only that you don't know what you're talking about but that you didn't listen to the person you paid to tell you the things you didn't know.

As usual if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

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  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:39pm on 22 March 2023

    In addition to the abysmal orbital mechanics that Roger points out, there's also the abysmal realism of the spacesuits. First of all it's pretty much impossible to put one on or take it off without an assistant, the Columbia reentry disaster report consideration of possible rescue missions ensured everyone would have two assistants not just one. Then there are entire layers of the spacesuits missing here, for example the bodysuit of water pipes that stop you boiling to death in your spacesuit. All you need is a trip to the Science Museum or indeed any museum with a realistic protrayal of a spacesuit and it is very clear how hopeless this is.

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