Movie Review: Gravity (2013)

Categories: Movie Reviews
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Published on: 2014.04.01

I watched Gravity partly because of its Oscar nomination; I’ve lately been in the habit of trying to see most or all of the Best Picture nominees — if only to see for myself whether they were worth it. This one was at least worth the nomination; not having seen all the others yet, I won’t say whether I think it’s the best. It was certainly better than The Wolf Of Wall Street and American Hustle.

It’s not every year that a science fiction movie is nominated for Best Picture, and this year there were two (the other was Her).

◊ Metadata

IMDb page
Wikipedia entry
Run Time: 1:31 (91 minutes)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

◊ What I Liked Most About It

Having been a space travel buff my entire life — I think I was three when I decided I wanted to be the first man on Mars — I’ve spent much of my movie-going life sighing at the scientific inaccuracies in science fiction movies (and sometimes in books). Gravity seemed to get most of it right — at least enough of it that I was impressed.

“This is not a documentary,” the director noted in one interview. “In the frame of the fiction, we wanted to be as respectful and accurate as possible,” Cuarón said. “But obviously, we had to take a big, big leap and a big, big freedom to tell the story.”

Still, for me, it was leaps and bounds beyond most science fiction movies in the way that space ships were portrayed, down to their controls, computers, and design, including the way airlock doors open, the way gear is stowed, and more. I’ve grown so tired of “near future” science fiction movies (Armageddon, anyone?) in which NASA has somehow designed completely new spacecraft that operate completely differently from anything that’s launched before, that Gravity was a breath of fresh air.

There were obvious exceptions that I noted while watching, like Hubble (347 miles high) being in the same orbit with the International Space Station (260 miles high) and the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 (235 miles high), each visible from the other and close enough to traverse the distance without a viable spacecraft or computer-calculated trajectories.

The second thing I like most about it was its length: 91 minutes (even less if you don’t watch the end credits). It’s about time that really good movies started being cut to under two hours, and this movie proved you can do it. For me, there’s rarely an excuse for a movie being three hours long, though I count Titanic (194 minutes) and Saving Private Ryan (169 minutes) among the exceptions.

◊ What I Liked Least About It

I didn’t like that the entire plot centered around a possible but very unlikely event — the Kessler syndrome, in which debris from from one defunct satellite (self-destroyed by the Russians in the movie) collides with other satellites until there’s so much high-speed debris in space that nearly everything is destroyed. While I understand that orbital speeds are so great that even small particles could cause great damage, it’s also well known that objects traveling at different speeds won’t remain in the same orbit. Their paths might cross once, but it’s extremely unlikely (impossible?) that the debris field would strike a second time, and certainly not in 90 minutes.

While there are indeed many objects in orbit around the Earth, many thousands of them by now, there is also an incredible amount of volume of space up there, millions of cubic miles.

I also didn’t appreciate the line from George Clooney’s character when it was learned that hundreds of communication satellites had been destroyed: “Half of North America just lost their Facebook”, which was supposed to be funny and/or edifying, but instead was just glaringly inaccurate — so much of the internet is still physically connected via cables/wires that satellites going out should affect very little of it (and Facebook is based in North America; people here would still be able to connect to it, while it would actually be people on other continents that would lose access to Facebook). The film ignored what would actually be lost: much of the world’s telephone and television communications, almost all of which goes through satellites at some point, not to mention the spying capabilities of various governments and the worldwide accessibility of GPS, which is used for navigation not just by tourists in cars, but by most of the world’s ships and airliners, as well as smaller boats and planes.

The loss of so many satellites would have an incalculable effect on the world economy and standard of living that would require decades to overcome.

◊ Overall Impression

I liked it. While I generally don’t enjoy movies with just one character (after a bit, Sandra Bullock is the only actor in the movie), it was short enough and accurate enough that I enjoyed watching.

I wasn’t, however, as impressed with the zero-G effects or the visuals of Earth that everyone was gushing about leading up to the Oscars. I’ve seen a bunch of space movies before, and many of them have amazing views of the Earth from space, and many of them do the zero-G effects well. Perhaps in 3D IMAX, these visual effects were stunning, but on a 47-inch LED television, it was just “I’ve seen it before”.

For the scientific accuracy alone, and the set designs of the spacecraft and space stations, I would have nominated this for Best Picture.

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