Lonely Planet

Gravity above ISS
The first IMAX movie I ever saw was Blue Planet at the Smithsonian, and its first shot still stands out as one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever had in a theater. As I remember it (I’ve deliberately never seen it since, so as not to ruin my memory of it), everything is pitch black, with nothing but a voice-over, as the Earth slowly rises from the bottom of the screen. I could see the translucent blue line around the horizon in sharp detail, almost as if the entire planet is enclosed in a glass sphere. Then I had the horrifying realization that “glass sphere” wasn’t correct at all; there was nothing separating all of us from the vastness of space except for an impossibly thin layer of air.

As the Earth kept rising, the scale of everything started to change: I could see enormous weather systems and even whole continents, until the gigantic screen was filled with an entire hemisphere. I had what amounts to an epiphany for a 21-year-old: simultaneously aware that all of humanity is united in one place in an infinite cosmos, but that it’s not a small world after all. It’s absolutely enormous, and there’s still so little of it that I’ve seen, and here I was floating above it. My heart was racing, and I had to wipe tears from my eyes.

Gravity has at least a dozen of those moments. It’s the only movie in recent memory that I’d unreservedly recommend to everyone; the only prerequisite for enjoying it is “being from Earth.” I can’t imagine watching it in anything other than IMAX 3D, even if you don’t normally like 3D. The power of the movie comes from its incredible sense of scale and immersion, and unless you’re one of those early-20th-century filmgoers who panicked at a film of an oncoming train, a 2D projection on a “normal” sized screen just won’t have the same effect. (Another point in favor of IMAX is that the sound design of Gravity is absolutely phenomenal).

I also can’t imagine it would’ve been as good had I known anything about it other than “it’s about astronauts and it’s extremely tension-filled.” So if you haven’t yet seen it, go away.

Children of Men: In Space!

Once my brain stopped making comparisons to Blue Planet, the movie that Gravity most reminded me of was Children of Men. (And my ongoing regret that the first time I saw Children of Men was on DVD. It kills me to think that there are people who won’t see Gravity in theaters and will instead Netflix it and wonder what all the fuss was about).

That might seem like a shallow comparison: although there are plenty of filmmakers who keep going back to the same wells stylistically or thematically, Alfonso Cuarón isn’t one of them. The reason I think it’s apt, though, is because both movies take what could have been straightforward action sequences and expand on them, past the point of “immersion” and to the point where your brain stops questioning whether any of what it’s seeing is real. (As long as you’re not Neil deGrasse Tyson, of course).

I was too engrossed to be able to tell exactly how it was being done, but I think it’s a combination of two things: first is the dilation of time. Children of Men had multiple sequences in which the action was uninterrupted as the camera followed Clive Owen’s character through battle zones, but it wasn’t “documentary-like” because it wasn’t quite realistic. Instead, those sequences stood out as masterful even while the movie was going on, since it was nearly impossible not to notice how long it’d been since the last cut. Gravity has the feeling of taking place in real time, even though we know that’s impossible because the film explicitly points out when ninety minutes have elapsed, multiple times. But what’s really remarkable is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself; it’s not until the end (when we finally let go of our death grip on the arm rests or our loved ones) that we realize we’ve just watched what seems like an unbroken stretch of time. Paradoxically, putting the cuts in all the places we expect them to be makes it seem more like one long, uninterrupted shot.

The other aspect I believe it shares with Children of Men is the combination of spectacular and mundane. It’s apparent throughout Gravity: pens and wrenches floating among the debris against a backdrop of the entire Earth, seeing a Marvin the Martian figure floating out of a shuttle before being confronted with the image of two dead astronauts, having the lead character spending the climax of an impossibly tense sequence by reading a technical manual.

But I think that combination of fantastic and prosaic is inherent to the entire structure of both movies. They both have what are essentially the most straightforward plots possible: you start here, and you need to get to there. The drama and the tension come from showing the billions of interesting things that can happen along the way. I’m not suggesting that hopping from shuttle to space station to space station while orbiting the planet at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour is boring, any more that I’m suggesting that trying to save the human race from going extinct is an everyday slice-of-life story. What I am suggesting is that the movies don’t take the stereotypical Hollywood action movie approach of trying to make everything the lead character does exciting. Instead, it’s not what they’re doing that’s exciting, but how they’re doing it.

Drama Inflation

A few days ago, Sean Thomason made this great observation:

And I’d say it doesn’t just apply to horror stories, but to most plot-driven movies. The bar for what constitutes an exciting story has been raised so much that you have to start with the single most interesting thing that will ever happen to any human being ever, and then build from there.

(My first inclination was to blame Steven Spielberg for bringing about the age of the blockbuster, but in retrospect that’s entirely off base. He’s a master of the action sequence, in particular the art of taking a relatively straightforward goal and exploring every single way it could possibly go wrong. We’d be in a better place if more filmmakers had tried to copy that instead of just throwing everything they could think of together in an attempt to amp up the action. So, much as I do with most of the world’s evil, I blame Michael Bay).

That’s a big part of why I left Gravity thinking about its realism and how much it reminded me of documentary footage, even though the movie tells the story of the worst possible disaster in the entire history of space flight, that results in the destruction of pretty much every major spacecraft, satellite, or space station that the human race has put into orbit. It’s mostly the visual language that gives Gravity the feeling of authenticity; much of it looks like now-familiar footage from NASA and the ISS, much like the sequences in Children of Men looked like war footage from Eastern Europe.

The casting helps, too. I’ve always liked Sandra Bullock (although not enough to make want to see The Blind Side), but it’s always seemed as if she was better than her material. I’m glad to see her carrying a movie that doesn’t make me feel slightly dumber for having watched it. The reason she was such a great choice is the same reason she was a great choice for Speed and Miss Congeniality, for that matter: she can take the premise of an over-the-top action movie or silly romantic comedy and then run with it, while always seeming like a real person in the middle of all of it. She’s inherently accessible, always seeming to be asking the audience “Can you believe all this?” but without ever breaking character. George Clooney’s practically a cartoon of “career astronaut” in this movie, but instead of breaking the sense of immersion, it fits in perfectly with Bullock there to keep everything else grounded. So to speak.

And speaking of immersion and being grounded: I was completely engrossed throughout, but after what must’ve been 30 or 40 minutes of space walks and spectacular vistas, the first moment where it occurred to me “I have no idea how they made this movie” was when Bullock’s character first gets out of her space suit and takes a moment to float in an airlock in the fetal position. I know vaguely that computers are somehow involved, but would still be completely unable to tell you how a majority of the zero-gravity scenes were filmed. And it’s a testament to how well the movie is paced that I quickly stopped caring and stopped trying to pick it apart.

Physics vs Fiction

Others have, though. Apparently there’s been something of a dust-up between the people pointing out the myriad scientific inaccuracies of Gravity and the people saying shut up you’re missing the point and ruining it for everyone!

(As a side note: whoever writes headlines for USA Today is a bad person, and you should be ashamed of yourself).

The first I heard of the “controversy” was a discussion about this blog post called “The Realism Canard, Or: Why Fact-Checking Fiction is Poisoning Criticism”. That post seems a little silly and over-dramatic, for a couple of reasons.

First, this is hardly a recent phenomenon. Suspension of disbelief has been a topic of debate for as long as there have been stories, and it’ll continue to be so as long as we keep telling stories. I can still remember being about 10 years old and absolutely furious at an article in Starlog magazine that pointed out all the scientific inaccuracies of The Empire Strikes Back. (How do they get from one star system to another with a broken faster-than-light drive? What does a space slug in a cave in an asteroid in the middle of a barren asteroid field actually eat?) Film criticism hasn’t been poisoned to the point of obsolescence in the 30 years since.

More importantly, though, the scientific inaccuracies in Gravity actually degrade the impact of the film. This isn’t just a case of people scrambling to IMDB to be the first to put an entry in the “Goofs & Glitches” section; deGrasse Tyson may point out that everything is orbiting in the wrong direction, but few people in the audience are actually going to care. (And even he pointed out that enjoying the movie and sharing facts aren’t two mutually exclusive things). But even though we in the audience might not be aware that the space station and shuttles had significantly different orbits, we can be aware that all the objects as shown in the movie are far too close to each other. Hopping between them — and within 90 minutes, no less — is simply implausible.

This isn’t like noticing that the level of liquid in a glass changes from scene to scene, and then claiming that your suspension of disbelief was shattered. All of the tension of the first 20 minutes of the film is rooted in the concept that space is impossibly vast.

The even bigger problem is that the movie uses a scientific implausibility to its advantage as a clever part of the storytelling, and then follows it with a sequence of increasingly implausible sequences. (People who haven’t seen the movie yet shouldn’t even be reading this far, but for those who have: stop now, spoilers follow). When Clooney’s character taps on the glass of Bullock’s capsule and then lets himself inside, it’s a near-perfect dramatic moment. We want it to be true, even while we’re aware that it’s impossible. It goes against not just everything we know, but everything we’ve been shown before. The scene did a fantastic job of conveying that feeling of dread and melancholy that comes from being in a dream: the vague sense that what’s happening is impossible, but you desperately want to play along because the fiction is so much better than reality.

That scene wasn’t, I believe, intended to fool the audience into thinking that it was real. There’s just too much value in that sense of relief mixed with dread, knowing it was inevitably going to turn out to be false and just wondering when. (Much more value than in a cheap reveal). And the movie let you know that it was a dream sequence not with a blurry camera effect, or an audio effect, or a music stinger, but simply by showing you something that was impossible. Even if we didn’t know how vacuums work, the movie’s shown us several times by now. (Not to mention the fact that it breaks every rule we know about how narratives work).

When the movie follows a sequence like that with an extended sequence showing Sandra Bullock breaking one of Newton’s laws after the other, culminating in scrambling across a space station in a scene that might as well have been in Armageddon, and then pushing random buttons in the hopes that one of them works, it shatters the suspension of disbelief. It makes it seem as if all the tension the movie spent so much time building was for nothing, since the Rules of Space Travel no longer apply. And it makes the entire sequence feel like just another Hollywood Action Movie.

All that said, I don’t think anyone pointing out the inaccuracies or complaining about the implausibilities is actually suggesting that they’d have preferred a documentary. By that point in the movie, it’s pretty much gone into full-on metaphor mode, and we’re eager to play along with the dream. We’ve just watched a couple hours of everything going wrong that possibly could, and we’ve earned the exhilaration that comes from seeing thrusters fire at just the right moment or a parachute open when it needs to. I don’t believe that the “documentary-like” techniques used in the movie were actually intended to suggest absolute realism; I think it’s more a case of chipping away at decades of cinema convention, to get us back to the point where a parachute opening is a breathtaking victory.

And the movie ends beautifully, managing to subtly and wordlessly suggest the complete scope of human existence: hubris and the fall of Icarus, birth, technology vs humanity, evolution of life from the seas to land, and the sense of finding yourself in a world that’s both familiar and alien. For most of the movie, I was thinking that Cuarón must have some kind of anti-space-travel agenda; who could possibly want to be an astronaut after seeing up close the hazards of space and being reminded of all the ways that it could go horribly, catastrophically wrong?

But by the end, I was left with a feeling similar to the first time I saw Blue Planet. It conveyed the same sense of the true scale of the Earth that any documentary footage or space photographs might evoke, the contradictory feelings of smallness and enormity. We can’t appreciate how united we all are until we see the Earth in total, and we’re reminded that all of human existence is confined to this one tiny dot adrift in the vastness of space. And at the same time, floating above the planet high enough to see continents and weather systems reminds us of how much there is to see.

Gravity takes that and expands it across two hours, driving it home with its relentless combination of being spellbound and terrified. We see it with two archetypes that put it into a perspective that no real person could: the career astronaut who seems to have seen everything, but can still marvel at the sight of sunset over the Ganges; and the scientist who’s spent years running on autopilot, cut off from human contact, witnessing some of the most amazing sights available to man but not actually seeing the true magnitude of them. The story of the film reminds us of the true extent of our scale in the universe: united as a species with more in common than different, together in a place that still has infinite potential for discovery and awe-inspiring beauty. The rest of the documentary Blue Planet, on the other hand, was about the environment or something.