Featuring Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side, Miss Congeniality, Speed, Forces of Nature), and George Clooney (Batman & Robin, Good Night and Good Luck), Gravity is not necessarily a SciFi film produced and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), but more of a “drama of a woman in space.” For this reason, it gets a lot of science wrong, as according to The Washington Post article, “Here’s what ‘Gravity’ gets right and wrong about space“:
Kevin Grazier, the science adviser for Alfonso Cuaron’s new film “Gravity,” has a bone to pick with Twitter-famous astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson.
“I have never seen people nitpick such a good film to death,” complained the former NASA engineer and UCLA professor, who has also consulted on series like “Battlestar Galactica.”
Tyson made headlines last week with a series of tweets that claimed, in unusually curmudgeonly fashion, that the film mucked up more or less every scientific phenomena it set out to capture — including the one for which it’s named. He made several very good points. It’s a movie, after all. (“No one said it was a documentary,” notes Grazier.) But as Tyson clarified in a later follow-up on Facebook, “Gravity” also got lots of things right. And, perhaps more importantly, it got millions of viewers interested in topics they’d usually groan through in high school physics.
With that said, we decided to try fact-checking the film’s science ourselves, with the help of Grazier and NASA engineer Robert Frost, a man well-known to Q&A site Quora for his lucid explanations of everything from orbital mechanics to airplane design.
Warning: Many, many spoilers (and a lot of physics sorcery) follows. Read this after you’ve seen the movie.
1. The Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong-1 are close enough to travel between them.
False. They’re so far apart, in fact, that it’s difficult to visualize. Not only are the three at different altitudes, but they’re also on different orbits — making it very unusual for them to even get within a few hundred miles of each other.
In fact, when Cuaron asked Grazier about that particular issue, Grazier told him the closest the two would ever possibly get was “the distance between here and Mexico.” They were in Hollywood at the time.
2. You can point at an object in space and head toward it, as George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do more or less throughout the whole movie.
False. In space, unlike in the atmosphere, an object’s speed depends on its altitude. That’s really counterintuitive, but it has to do with the forces that keep an object in orbit.
When a satellite — let’s say the Hubble — circles Earth, two carefully balanced forces are making that happen: gravity, which pulls the satellite toward Earth, and centripetal force, a product of gravity that keeps the satellite swinging in an ellipse around it. As you get closer to Earth, gravity’s pull gets stronger — which means that centripetal force must also get stronger to balance it. Translation: A lower altitude means a higher orbital speed, and vice versa.
That makes sense, right? But it also makes travel between, say, a destroyed satellite and the ISS extremely difficult. Every time you speed up or slow down, your altitude changes from that of the object you’re trying to hit.
3. Clooney had to let go to save Bullock.
True — probably. This is a major point of contention among the scientific “nitpickers,” sure to go down in history with Jack’s tragic freezing at the end of the “Titanic.” (For the record, Mythbusters conclusively proved that Jack could have fit on that door with Rose.)
On one hand are people like Tyson, who argue that, since Clooney was in free-fall and thus essentially weightless, Bullock could have pulled him toward her easily. Both Grazier and Frost see it differently, though. Here’s Frost’s explanation:
Isaac Newton tells us that an object in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by an outside force. Kowalski was unable to arrest his forward movement by grabbing ahold of the ISS, so he goes floating off into space. Other than gravity, which we can ignore for this close contact scene because it is acting upon everything in the same way, there are no forces acting on Kowalski. He is moving away because he was moving in that direction and nothing stopped him. Ryan (Bullock) goes after Kowalski …
This is where I think the scene gets a little hard to interpret. The fact that she just barely grabs him and doesn’t continue closing in on him tells us that she is decelerating. She is decelerating because her leg is caught up in the parachute cords from the Soyuz. If we imagine the parachute cords are a rubber band, what would happen? The band would stretch and the energy needed to stretch it would be taken from Ryan. She has a kinetic energy equal to half her mass times her velocity squared. Her mass can’t change, so her velocity would go down.
Now, what affect does Kowalski have on the situation? There is no force acting on him. But he too has a kinetic energy equal to half his mass times his velocity squared. So, if the rubber band is to slow Ryan to a stop it also has to slow Kowalski. So now it has to absorb her energy and his energy. Kowalski’s interpretation of the situation is that the parachute cords can’t absorb that much energy. So, he figures that if he lets go of her hand, the parachute cords, instead of absorbing Ryan’s kinetic energy AND his kinetic energy, will only have to absorb Ryan’s kinetic energy.
4. Bullock could jet around on a fire extinguisher.True and false. Using the fire extinguisher would certainly move Bullock, but not necessarily in the direction she intended.
In order for the fire extinguisher trick to work, the extinguisher would have needed to sit right at her “center of mass.” Imagine that kind of like the center of a seesaw with equal weights on both seats — it’s the point where, if a pivot were placed there, the object would stay balanced and in place. Spraying a fire extinguisher from this point would push a balanced, upright Bullock in whatever direction she wanted to go.
But spraying from any other point would throw her off balance and spin her around — kind of like pushing someone on an ice rink in the shoulder, Frost says. This spinning would be faster and more disorienting than on Earth, though, because there’s no resistance in space. (For what it’s worth, other NASA alums have also complainedthat American spacecraft don’t carry this style of extinguisher.)
5. A satellite, once destroyed, can form a catastrophic cloud of space debris. True. It wouldn’t happen as fast as in the movie, Frost says, and it wouldn’t impact quite so many satellites (more on that in #6), but a space debris event could definitely come with huge consequences.
In fact, it’s happened before. In January 2007, the Chinese unleashed more than 1,600 pieces of debris into the atmosphere when they destroyed one of their own satellites with a missile. The impact of that missile strike sent the debris into orbits much different from the original satellite’s, creating, in Frost’s words, a cloud of debris “enveloping the Earth and [continuing] to threaten any spacecraft between those two altitudes.”
Here’s one very scary thing about space debris that “Gravity” got wrong: Frost says that it can move so fast that astronauts wouldn’t even see it. Holes would just mysteriously appear in the equipment around them.
6. Space debris from a low-flying satellite could knock out communications satellites. False — mostly. The space debris in “Gravity” somehow knocks out both the Hubble and the communications satellites NASA uses to communicate with spacecraft, which means Clooney and Bullock can’t reach Earth.
But those communications satellites, which go by the acronym TDRSS (Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System), orbit 35,900 kilometers above Earth — about 100 times higher than Hubble, per a Tyson tweet. The same cloud of space debris wouldn’t have knocked out both … unless, Grazier argues, we’re talking about a “cascade” of debris from one of Russia’s special high-tilt orbit satellites, which operate at a different latitude than most.
“I understand that’s a teachable moment,” Grazier said of Tyson’s tweets, “but I think a more interesting teachable question might be, ‘how might we get that debris up there?’” His answer: Eccentricity.
7. Space stations fall out of orbit.
True. Remember how orbits result from two big forces? When you add a third force — atmospheric drag — it can throw the whole equation off.
Satellites like the Hubble, which fly pretty low, encounter that kind of drag and eventually fall out of orbit. It happens over a period of years, though, not nearly as quickly as what we see in the film.
8. Bodies freeze instantly when exposed to space.
False. Space is a vacuum. It’s counterintuitive, but there’s more or less nothing out there, including temperature or air. A human body exposed to space would radiate away all its heat, but it wouldn’t freeze-dry instantly, like the gruesome corpses in “Gravity.” The writer and astronomer Phil Plait explains this over at Slate.
You would lose consciousness within seconds, however: The low pressure of space makes the gas in the lungs expand and forces it out of the body. Because there’s no air in space, you can’t breathe in again. According to astronaut Michael Barratt, that leaves only 12 seconds before hypoxia, or lack of oxygen, causes you to black out.
9. Tears float off your face in space.
False. Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield demonstrated this pretty wonderfully in a video last April.
What explains that phenomenon? Surface tension, a powerful force that bonds the molecules in liquids together and accounts for things like bugs that can walk on water. Surface tension in space, however, is way stronger than surface tension on Earth, because those molecular forces don’t have to fight gravity so much. Astronaut Scott Parazynski actually told Vulture that surface tension is “the strongest force up there.”
10. A week in space can damage your muscles.
True-ish. NASA reports that astronauts can lose up to 20 percent of their muscle mass during space flights as short as five to 11 days.
That’s not for lack of exercise: Astronauts work out more than two-and-a-half hours each day. But even intense exercise can’t make up for the fact that, without gravity, the “antigravity” muscles (calves, quadriceps, much of the the back and neck) just aren’t working very hard and tend to atrophy. That explains why Bullock struggles to get out of the water at the end of the movie, though she seems unusually affected for just a few days in space.
Also, as many a snarky online commentator has noted, it seems somehow improbable that Bullock could kick her way out of a sinking space capsule … but lack the muscle tone to stand upright. (In fact, this is an issue NASA worries about: “The loss of muscle mass means a loss of strength that can be potentially dangerous if an astronaut must perform a strenuous emergency procedure upon re-entry into the Earth’s gravitational field,” one agency fact sheet warns.)
None of this is to imply, of course, that “Gravity” isn’t a good movie. It’s an amazing movie. But both Frost and Grazier want to make sure that, despite that ultra-realistic CGI, people understand that this is, ultimately, fiction.
“I appreciate that sometimes we have to just let movies be movies,” Frost wrote in a message. “[But] as a space educator, it is a little frustrating for me to know that because of the stunningly realistic appearance of this film, people will absorb some of the things they see and allow those to manipulate their understanding of space.”
Additionally, according to The Guardian article, “Sandra Bullock: the pain of Gravity“:
The makers of Gravity won’t really come back down to Earth till the awards season is over, but even if the movie doesn’t win any Baftas or Academy Awards, there is a sense of triumph in their simply having got the film made. They can also console themselves with the wall-to-wall acclaim and the $700m-odd in worldwide box office, but it’s inarguable that, more than any other movie of the past year, Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic pushed back the frontiers of film-making – to the extent that most viewers couldn’t fathom how on earth (or elsewhere) the film was even made. What is easy to forget is that, initially, Cuarón and his team didn’t have the slightest idea how to make it either.
Compared with your standard movie project, Gravity was more like trying to land somebody on the moon. It was, after all, a vast collective effort aimed at getting a couple of people into space for a short while. Nobody had done something like it before; nobody knew if it was possible given the available technology and the allotted timeframe. It was a genuine leap into the unknown.
“Every day, we thought: ‘This is not going to work,'” says Cuarón. “It was a process of trial and error, and little, little hints of hope, and also a lot of mistakes. The only test screening that we had, months before the film was finished, was a disaster.”
Sandra Bullock agrees: “We had no idea if it would be successful. You’d explain that it was an avant-garde, existential film on loss and survival in space and everyone would be like: ‘OK …’ It didn’t sound like a film people would be drawn to.”
Cuarón remembers watching the moon landings live on TV. As a boy, he dreamed of being an astronaut. But he never set out to reinvent the wheel with Gravity. “The thing is, I’m not a technological person,” he explains. “When I finished the screenplay, I thought: ‘We can do this in about a year.’ [It took four-and-a-half years.] It’s a simple story of a woman in space alone. For me it was a small, intimate film – yes, with some visual effects, but that was it.”
He didn’t even plan to make a space movie. “Before the story, you start with the theme,” Cuarón says. And in a word, that theme was “adversity”. Long before space was ever mentioned, Cuarón was discussing survival scenarios with his son and co-writer Jonás. Their reference points were two utterly un-spacey films: Steven Spielberg’s Duel and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped – both propulsive, stripped-down thrillers with an existential dimension. “A Man Escaped is not about a man escaping from prison, it’s about a man transcending the metaphysical walls of his existence,” Cuarón says. They talked about hostile, isolated locations, such as the desert (Jonás had just written a desert movie, Desierto, which he recently started shooting). “Then we said: ‘OK, let’s take it to an extreme place where there’s nothing.’ I had this image of an astronaut spinning into space away from human communication. The metaphor was already so obvious.”
Adversity became more than just the theme once they started trying to figure out how to make Gravity. Cuarón already had a reputation for pushing beyond accepted norms. Despite his gentle demeanour, the 52-year-old director can be a taskmaster on set, according to colleagues. There’s a story that when he was directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, he wasn’t satisfied with Buckbeak the hippogriff – a digitally modelled eagle/horse creature. Cuarón thought it looked far too clean. He told the effects people to go back and show him a hippogriff after it had just been mating in the woods. Sure enough, he got a convincingly wild beast rather than a nice bit of animation. If you look closely, you can even see Buckbeak casually shitting on the forest floor the first time Harry meets him.
Gravity was a new set of challenges: simulated weightlessness, the physics of space, replicating complex machinery – all compounded by ambitiously long takes. “When I realised it was going to be so technological, I was turned off, because that’s not the process I wanted to get into,” says Cuarón. “But then you realise all that technology is just a tool for the cinematic expression you want to convey. We explored every single available technology and saw it would not apply, but then you think: ‘OK, if I combine this with this…'”
Explaining in detail how Gravity was made will take several discs of a deluxe DVD box set, but in brief, Cuarón credits the ingenuity of his crew, particularly cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and effects supervisor Tim Webber. “I don’t understand that distinction where people want to put art like a religious experience above everything else. Before 19th-century romanticism, humanity and art and technology were one and the same. So I consider a lot of these people to be artists in their own right.”
Lubezki had a eureka moment at a Peter Gabriel gig. He was inspired by the LED stage lighting to put the actors inside a giant light box. Screens on the inside walls of this 9ft cube matched the lighting on the actors’ faces to the virtual environment that they would eventually be spinning around in – once it was digitally rendered, months later. Only one actor could fit inside, usually suspended on a special wire harness like a human puppet, occasionally supported by a clamp around one leg, or some other medieval-sounding device. Robotic arms adapted from the car industry moved both actors and camera in pre-programmed moves to match the computer animation.
If this giant lightbox was Gravity’s Apollo capsule, Bullock and George Clooney were its test pilots, and most of the time they were flying blind. “At least they had the moon to look at when they landed on it!” says Bullock. “We couldn’t see what we were supposedly looking at. We saw blackness, we saw white light boxes, we saw machinery, maybe pieces of pod or Soyuz. We had to imagine it all.”
Bullock’s working day on the shoot sounds more like a complex medical procedure than an acting gig. She describes it as a “morose headspace”. She was strung or strapped inside the lightbox for up to 10 hours a day. She was usually in complete silence, save for instructions coming through an earpiece, and observed only by a camera on the end of a robotic arm. It was as if she was acting in total privacy, she says: “The only people I’d see was if someone came in to adjust the rig or fix something. Everything else was behind this black curtain on this vast black sound stage. Often I would just stay in whatever apparatus I was in because it was too long to get in and out of it. You learn to zone out. I don’t know if meditation is the right word but it was that principle. I would either play music or just close my eyes and stay where I was – until the end of the day where you’d put your own head back on and go outside and have the benefit of sunshine.”
At least it was an asset in the “adversity” department. “My situation was somewhat like the situation the character was in,” she says, laughing. “There’s no one around, you’re frustrated, nothing works, you’re in pain, you’re lonely, you want someone to fix everything for you but they can’t – all those things I was feeling.”
And when she wasn’t literally hanging around, Bullock had to manoeuvre through precisely choreographed moves, to synch with the virtual environment she would be inserted into. “That was the most frustrating part,” she says. “You thought you’d executed it properly then you’d hear ‘Sandy …’ in the earpiece, and either Alfonso or Tim would say: ‘At 16.5 seconds, your hand was three inches too far forward, it needs to come back. Literally, if you were one inch out of place you had to start over. If you were two seconds too long in the scene, you had to start over. It was so angering and nerve-racking, but you just kept doing it till you got it right.”
With all the physical strain, Bullock required regular visits from a physiotherapist to “put me back together,” she says. She twisted her pelvis and suffered multiple bruises and cuts, but she bore it better than her co-star. Having sustained a serious back injury in 2005 (while making Syriana), Clooney found the harness contraptions agonising. “He’s always in an extreme amount of pain,” Bullock says, “and he had to get into that rig every day. He was only there for three weeks, but George had a lot more to deal with than I did.”
The fact that the two are old friends helped. Bullock is unsurprised by Clooney’s recent webchat where he joked: “Sandy drinks so much that oftentimes it’s just hard to keep her upright.”
“In order to tolerate George I need to consume large amounts of alcohol,” she fires back. “So I only really drank for three weeks, to be honest – while he was there.”
Bullock describes the British crew, though, as “civilised”. “I think half the time they felt sorry for me, so they were extra gentle and extra kind. My priority was my son, Louis, so they created an entire jungle for him to play in, all inside this concrete jungle. So all I had to do was step off the soundstage and see this wonderul place they had made for him. They didn’t have to do that but they did.”
Eyebrows have been raised by Gravity’s nominations for the Bafta for outstanding British film, as if Britain were desperately reclaiming the movie, now that it’s a hit. But as Bullock points out, she and Clooney were the only non-Britons involved. Even Cuarón is an honorary Brit. He came to London to make Harry Potter, 12 years ago, and has lived and worked here ever since. It’s a better place to bring up his two children, he says, and when he began to realise the complexity of Gravity, he decided he could only do it with Tim Webber and Framestore, the London-based effects house, with whom he worked on Harry Potter and Children Of Men. “I consider myself part of the British film community,” he says.
Gravity wasn’t simply an exercise in addressing and overcoming adversity; the whole idea was borne out of it, too, Cuarón says. The reason he was thinking about adversity was because he was beset by it in his own life. At the time of writing Gravity, he had recently been through a divorce, and was reeling from the collapse of another project, a children’s film starring Charlotte Gainsbourg. “I went through one of those things that when it rains, it shits,” he says. “Suddenly every single angle around your life becomes very challenging and very painful: personal, work, health, everything.”
Bullock has had her own issues in recent years. After winning an Oscar in 2010 for The Blind Side, she went through a fairly public divorce from her husband, motorbike builder Jesse James. She had also just adopted her baby son. She took a two-year break from acting, saying she felt “sad and scared”.
“We all have adversity. It’s there,” Bullock says. “You can bring all your adversity to work, but if it has no bearing on the way the story’s being told, you just have to leave your life behind and put yourself in her shoes.”
“When you’re working, you have more detachment than in your life,” says Cuarón. “So the way of addressing adversity at work starts informing how to address adversity in life. Being able, like Sandra’s character, to put your feet on the ground is very gratifying. It’s like Schopenhauer said, people tend to believe that adversity is this extraordinary thing in humanity; adversity is the norm. It is extraordinary when you don’t experience adversity. Adversity shapes who you are and how you deal with life.”
Finally, according to the Collect Space article, “‘Gravity’ Pulls in 7 Oscars, Including Best Director, at Academy Awards“:
“Gravity” was a force at Sunday night’s (March 2) 86th Academy Awards, but the pull of the space thriller was not enough to win the Oscar for best picture.
As critics had expected going into the evening, “Gravity” attracted the most awards out of all of the films, taking the Oscars for seven of the 10 categories for which it received nominations, including best director for Alfonso Cuarón.
“Like any other human ever making a film, it can be a transformative experience,” Cuarón said in his acceptance speech. “And I would like to thank ‘Gravity,’ because for many of us involved in making this film, it was definitely a transformative experience.”
“And it’s good because it took so long, if not, it would be a waste of time,” he added. “What really sucks is that while for a lot of people, that transformation was wisdom, for me it was just the color of my hair.”
Born in Mexico, Cuarón is the first Latino to be honored as best director.
Losing best picture to the historical epic drama “12 Years a Slave,” “Gravity” also “let go” the best actress award for Sandra Bullock (Cate Blanchett took it for “Blue Jasmine”) and best production design (to “The Great Gatsby”).
“Sandy, you’re ‘Gravity,'” Cuarón said, addressing Bullock during his acceptance speech. “You’re the soul, the heart, of the film. You’re the most amazing collaborator and one of the best people I’ve ever met.”
Had “Gravity” won best picture, it would have marked the first time that a science fiction film was honored in the top category.
“Gravity” was awarded Oscars for best original score, best sound editing, best sound mixing, best production design, cinematography, best film editing and best visual effects.
The Warner Bros. movie follows spacewalking astronauts (Bullock and George Clooney) who are left stranded and tumbling through space after a debris strike destroys their space shuttle. Critically-acclaimed, the 3D movie was also a box office hit, taking in more than $700 million worldwide to date.
“Gravity” won for special effects over another space film, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” in large part due to its detailed digital recreations of real spacecraft, including the shuttle, Hubble Space Telescope and International Space Station. The film also pioneered new technologies for reproducing the weightless environment of space without filming in real microgravity.
Some of the credit for the movie’s success can be shared with real astronauts. NASA’s Andrew Thomas advised the filmmakers throughout the making of “Gravity,” while Cady Coleman gave acting tips to Bullock from onboard the real space station.
“Congratulations to the cast and crew of ‘Gravity,'” Cady Coleman said in a video statement released by NASA on Sunday after the film had won. “Thank you for making the movie in our backyard and showing everyone around the world that it’s their backyard, too.”
The evening’s awards add to the movie’s already long list of honors, including best picture from the Producers Guild of America and the Golden Globe for best director. The film was named Best British Film by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts and won seven Critics’ Choice awards including best director and best actress.
“Gravity” was released on Blu-ray, DVD and digital HD on Feb. 25. The movie was also uplinked to the International Space Station, where NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and his crewmates screened the film.
“Of course, nothing beats the real thing here in space, but we want to congratulate the entire production and directing team and stars of ‘Gravity’ for the honors they’ve earned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in bringing this ultimate in extreme environments to movie-goers around the world. Well done!” Mastracchio said in a video from the space station.
According to The Guardian review:
Alfonso Cuarón’s incredibly exciting, visually amazing film is about two astronauts floating in space. The title refers to the one big thing almost entirely absent from the film: it’s like The Seventh Seal being called Levity or Last Tango in Paris Chastity. With gorgeous, tilting planet Earth far below in its shimmering blue aura, a bulkily suited spaceman and spacewoman veer, swoop and swerve in woozy slo-mo as they go about their business tethered to the station, like foetuses still attached to their umbilical cords. The movie’s final sequence hints at some massive cosmic rebirth; a sense that these people are the first or last human beings in the universe, like something by Kubrick.
Sandra Bullock plays a scientific engineer, Dr Ryan Stone, who after six months’ specialist Nasa training has been allowed into space to attach a high-tech new scanning device to the Hubble telescope. She is under the watchful supervision of Matt Kowalski, a genial and grizzled space veteran played by George Clooney. The voice of Houston mission control is played by Ed Harris, in playful homage to Ron Howard’s 1995 space-disaster classic Apollo 13. Only this time it is him telling them about the problem. Soon, a terrifying situation unfolds.
Director and co-writer Cuarón brilliantly manages to create both awe at his glorious space vistas, and knuckle-gobbling tension at what’s happening in the foreground. It’s like a bank heist in Reims cathedral – in space. You could find yourself asthmatically gasping with rapture and excitement at the same time. After it was over, I was 10 minutes into my tube ride home before I remembered to exhale.
Since its release, various specialist observers have unsportingly emerged to say that the science involved in Gravity is fanciful and wrong. No matter. What makes Gravity so gripping, and so novel, is that it behaves as if what everyone is doing is happening in a world of commonplace fact: like a movie about two drivers on a runaway train or hot-air balloon. A movie set in space tends to trigger an assumption: that it is set in the future (although not the case with Star Wars). If it is not like Apollo 13, about the bygone era of space exploration carried out by guys in quaint crewcuts, then it is going to be set in some madeup futurist world about space exploration in aluminium-foil costumes and spacecraft doors opening and closing with zhhh-zhhh sounds – a world that may or may not involve extraterrestrial creatures, but which importantly and patently doesn’t exist; a movie whose effects depend, at least partly, on the assumption that what is being shown is not true.
Gravity isn’t like that. It’s not sci-fi, more a contemporary space thriller. It’s happening in the here and now. That is why it is so absorbing, although you may have to abolish your own scepticism-gravity – suspending disbelief at the idea that Stone’s training would have allowed her to be reasonably familiar with the control panels of Russian and Chinese spacecraft with their Cyrillic and Chinese letterings. Of course, these aspects may have been cunningly devised by Cuarón so that his movie can blast off in Russian and Chinese territories.
The movie draws, broadly, on the style, if not the substance, of that dystopian tradition stretching from Kubrick’s 2001 (1968): it is comparable to Alien (1979) or Dark Star (1974) or Silent Running (1972), in that it adopts something of their downbeat, quasi-realist behaviour, applied to something notionally real; it has some of their flashes of humour and horror and tension, but it is without cynicism or satire, without monsters or talking computers. Incidentally, the deeply scary question of what happens if you accidentally become detached from your spacecraft and float irreversibly off into space brought back memories of Brian de Palma’s little-liked Mission to Mars (2000). But importantly, it’s supposed to be real.
Clooney effectively concedes star status to Bullock and Stone’s face, as she finally reveals the personal anguish she’s brought up to space inside her, becomes gaunt and waxy and agonised: a very real 3D image of pure human pain. When she cries in zero-gravity, with real tears floating away from the face, it is a heartstopping spectacle. Kowalski’s gallantry and Stone’s yearning are compelling and unexpectedly romantic.
Is Gravity very deep or very shallow? Neither. It is a brilliant and inspired movie-cyclorama, requiring neither gravity nor gravitas. This is a glorious imaginary creation that engulfs you utterly, helped by superlative visual effects design from Tim Webber, cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki and production design by Andy Nicholson. As you sit in the cinema auditorium, you too will feel the entertainment G-forces puckering and rippling your face.