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SF movie review: Gravity

Gravity movie theater poster
Warner Brothers

Gravity (film)


The official release date for Ender’s Game is November 1st, only ten days away! Why do I mention Ender’s Game in a review for the new blockbuster movie Gravity? Because for everything that Ender’s Game should be, Gravity isn’t.

See Gravity but only to whet your appetite for Ender’s Game, which should be a hundred times better.

There, that’s my review.

Oh, you want more detail? OK, keep reading then, but watch out for spoilers. This review will focus on the plot of the movie rather than its other shortcomings or visual successes.

A shaky plot, nice special effects, great acting.

In Gravity, Sandra Bullock stars as Dr Ryan Stone, a medical doctor who fights to survive after orbital debris kills her crew mates and strands her on the International Space Station. That's pretty much the whole plot in one tidy sentence, but the visual effects make the movie so much more.

Many other reviews and comments by scholars like Neil deGrasse Tyson (and his comments upon reflection here) have exposed some of the disastrous errors in the plot of Gravity. Suffice it to say that everything Neil tweeted was true. As was his conclusion - the movie was good, overall.

I’d like to say Gravity could have been a great movie if they had gotten the macro-physics right (things like orbits)… except there’s no way they could have gotten the physics right. The main plot device, island-hopping from the shuttle to ISS to a Chinese space station – just could not have happened. Not by any conceivable stretch of the imagination.

OK, so that’s the “one impossible thing” every science fiction writer is allowed. Let’s forget about that for now. How was the rest of the movie?

Not bad! Gravity had other issues, for sure, but none that would spoil the movie for most viewers. The writers, producer, and animators did get many things right, like the wonders and fun of being in space, the awesome views of Earth (of Egypt at least, over and over and over) the day/night cycles in orbit, the joys and pains of zero-G, and an astronaut’s difficulty readjusting to gravity upon returning to Earth. The look and feel of the movie makes it a big winner; it is fun to watch.

So… for a superficial movie that will wow the audience, Gravity succeeds. Just don’t look too deeply.

Yet we must look deeper

The acting in gravity was excellent. Sandra Bullock and George Clooney both should win some awards. Their performances were even stronger than a casual viewer might appreciate, since the writers were so cruel to them.

Let me digress a minute… when I wrote my first Mars novel, Shadows of Medusa, I had to deal with a fundamental character problem because the crew I sent to Mars would not have been an “A team.” Writers love flawed characters, but sometimes we make them too flawed. In late edits, I had to take some rough edges off my characters so they would appeal to readers and be more believable. That’s a painful exercise for any writer, but the novel ended up far better because of it.

I liked the characters in Gravity, but some of their flaws ran deep. At the start of the move, Sandra’s character, a medical doctor, inspects an electronics board during an upgrade mission for the Hubble Space Telescope. Huh? How – why – when – what the bleep is up with that??? Add to that some major psych problems due to the recent death of her four year old daughter… and it’s hard to figure how NASA would let her anywhere near a multi-billion dollar piece of engineering excellence like Hubble. Yet Bullock’s acting performance was so powerful that she made this craziness seem possible, or even probable.

Watching the plot development, I sorta had the impression that Bullock’s medical background was added into a late edit. It was certainly inconsistent with many other details in the dialogue or action. For example, she hyperventilates in her suit and then seems surprised to find her oxygen levels low. And she can fly Russian and Chinese spacecraft! Why couldn’t they have made her an electrical engineer or pilot? It’s almost as if a sexist writer decided that a woman can’t possibly be a skilled engineer or pilot, so she must be turned into a medical doctor. At best, they missed a golden opportunity here to promote women scientists and engineers.

George had similar problems. Clooney’s character was the model of NASA efficiency and coolness under pressure, a real inspiration, except when he’s joyriding in a MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit) at the start of the movie. Why was he doing nothing useful in a MMU? NASA hasn’t used them since 1984 because they were deemed too risky. Also, why did George insist upon retrieving the body of a dead crew member while he’s towing Sandra back to the shuttle, knowing full well she’s almost out of oxygen and he’s almost out of thruster juice? Ridiculous.

Seven out of ten planets...

One could go on exposing nit-picks like the ones above… but the bottom line, most of them don’t matter. The visual effects in Gravity will appeal to a large segment of audience, and the movie promotes positive goals and ideals of NASA and others who would like to see a space-faring future for mankind.

Despite an unsatisfying abrupt ending to Gravity, this reviewer left the theater feeling positive and hopeful about the future. Contrast this to my feeling after seeing the current record-holding SF movie in terms of box office revenue, Avatar. After watching Avatar I wanted to travel to Washington DC, find the Red Button in the Oval Office, and press it repeatedly with my forehead. Gravity is way better than Avatar and might even pass it up at the box office if international sales come through. Good. But compared to other SF blockbusters, Gravity probably won’t break into my list of top ten favorites.

Next week, Ender’s Game might do much better. If the screen writers and producer succeed in capturing half the sheer power and nuance of the written novel, one of the best SF books ever written, Ender’s Game will be a much greater hit than Gravity. We’ll see – stay tuned! (And always remember, the enemy's gate is down)

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