‘GRAVITY’ — All in The Day’s Work

Right on time with my seventh Shuttle launch, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity opened in theaters. Any true spaceflight and astronomy aficionado like me would normally have a huge beef with Hollywood-tainted space flicks—the launch sequence in Armageddon would have one of us ready to take a Louisville Slugger to the screen. But just as projected, Gravity lived up to every expectation I had, expectations higher than Juno. My intent is neither to summarize the film, nor to go line by line on its inaccuracies, but all of that may or may not be futile as I explain to you why this is one of my all time favorite movies—that IMAX ticket you’ll be willing to pay another $10 for as long as it’s in theaters.

Spoilers will ensue, and the emergency egress is to your left.

I take Tuesdays out from time to time to just, you know, be Javan. While not a movie person by any means, if one looks good enough, usually comedy movies, I’ll use one of those days to go to the theater—“the show” as we called it back in New Orleans. Bolting there straight from class in my NASA tee and custom-made Space Shuttle dog tag, I ended up sitting next to a guy who had already seen the movie three times. “This is your first 3D experience? You picked one hell of a movie!” Nervous as hell, I braced for impact as the TV spots replayed in my head. The lights dimmed…5…4…3…2…1…IMAX. Let’s do this.

I study graphic design, and I know that title design for TV and film is an art. With that said, the title for this movie was very basic: a black background with simple white sans-serif lettering. G R A V I T Y. It set the tone for the whole premise of the movie. The film opened with a CGI shot of Earth during sunrise, something that symbolizes “new beginnings” when it comes to spaceflight. Eventually, you were able to make out the fictitious orbiter Explorer, then the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), then the three spacewalkers. I went into the show already looking for similarities with the 2009 STS-125 Shuttle mission, of which parts of the movie were clearly based on. In fact, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney did make me think of two of that mission’s astronauts: Megan McArthur and Mike Massimino.


Clooney played mission specialist Matt Kowalski, a talkative seasoned spacewalker who was determined to break the record for longest spacewalk. He was accompanied by mission specialist Shariff (shuh-REEF), whose first name isn’t mentioned, and mission specialist Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a mother mourning the loss of her young daughter. At this point, Kowalski (Clooney) was still testing out the modified Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) while Shariff and Stone were cleaning up from the day’s work. During these scenes, I was captivated by the detail of the orbiter. I read that the layout of the payload is directly modeled from STS-125, and I noticed all the numbering of the heat-shield tiles on the wings, tail and Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) pods, as well as the ribbed textures of the thermal blankets, all of which serve as the skin of the spacecraft. I won’t lie and say that a wave of envy didn’t come over me, wishing that the textures of my orbiters had anywhere near that much detail. But then I thought about how much that would fuck up my already painfully long rendering times. Daydreaming over, back to the flick.

Attached to the Canadarm, a massive deal in both spaceflight and Canadian culture, Stone was having a bit of trouble putting her hardware back in place, which reminded me of a defect within Hubble that caused STS-125 to be pushed back nearly a year. This is when Mission Control in Houston ordered them all to hurry back into Explorer and bail due to a storm of debris from a Russian satellite nearby. Too late, Explorer and Hubble were ripped to shreds as the two spacewalkers were left to fight for their lives. Kowalski was already out of the way as Stone was being slung like a yo-yo, giving me a sense of being on the pendulum ride from Hell. I could feel the motion, I could feel the sharp debris slicing me open, causing me to writhe in my seat. Eventually, Stone was flung into the dark side of the earth, still in communication with Kowalski as her oxygen supply continued to run out. The two survivors managed to reunite, but this time, they did it old-school: “ball and chain.”

Strapped to each other, they used Kowalski’s bursts of fuel to propel themselves towards an abandoned-but-moderately damaged ISS. This scene had a lot of humor, as did the whole movie, but it was also where my motion sickness picked up as we were treated not only to an external view of Stone snapping back and forth like a kid’s balloon, but we also go to see it from her point of view. Dizzy yet? Along the way, they met up with Explorer, now left for dead with a pilot and commander frozen due to the temperatures up there, and Mission Specialist Shariff, whose face had been punched out by the debris.

“Houston in the blind, I, mission specialist Kowalski, and mission specialist Stone, are the lone survivors of the STS-157.”

Even though humans likely wouldn’t freeze that quickly, I took notice of the fact that the film’s design team actually took time to respect the natural elements of space, giving us real constellations rather than some random starfield made in After Effects or Photoshop. Able to spot Cygnus and Crux, and possibly Taurus and Orion, I then took the downtime to notice their mission patches, both of which were modeled after those for STS-125 and the EVA (extravehicular activity) program. Northern lights also made a cameo, but that was later on in the story.

The STS-125 and -157 patches (left). The NASA EVA patch (top right) is based on da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," versus the one used in the movie, which is based on evolution.

The STS-125 and -157 patches (left). The NASA EVA patch (top right) is based on da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” versus the one used in the movie, which is based on evolution. —from CollectSpace.com

The pair of astronauts sped off. Unable to slow down, the two tumbled their way along the outside of the outpost, with Stone’s foot eventually getting trapped in one of the Soyuz’ parachutes. My motion sickness intensified as I was not only being hammered with TDRS junk, but also with two 300-pound EMUs as well, even though we’re in microgravity. I’ll get back to that a little later. Everyone’s likely gotten a hearty laugh from the quintessential sitcom shtick, in which a first person lands to the ground successfully, only for the second person to come hurdling towards the camera and crush them. Gravity took this to a whole new level, throwing you back into your seat every time it happened—WHOOSH—as the whole theater shook. I still couldn’t help but laugh after each hit; it never gets old.

Amidst the second round of debris, Kowalski made the chivalrous executive decision to sacrifice himself for Stone, setting her free and allowing her to untie herself and seek refuge in the ISS. All of this implies that there is a significant amount of gravity present to cause such a conundrum, which simply isn’t true. A slight tap on the cords would have set Stone free, allowing them to continue on. In stating this, I should also add that such a storm wouldn’t happen. While space debris orbits the earth at high speeds every hour, minute and second of the day, it wouldn’t create such a mess, plus there are mechanics that allow the ISS, etc. to dodge them. Also, the Hubble, ISS and other satellites are all at vastly different altitudes, unable to come remotely within reach of each other. But those inaccuracies are what made this movie great!

Now that things have calmed down, Stone and her unmoving hair took off the EMU, curling up into the fetal position while still wrapped around her tether in the airlock, creating the effect of a fetus in its mother’s womb—safety. Making her way around, she failed to notice some loose wires that were on fire, which eventually set off the station’s alarms. With bright flames and what looked like gas canisters barreling towards her, Stone’s only option was to don a Sokol space suit and sneak off in the remaining Soyuz module, also stuck on the aforementioned parachute. Thinking fast, she was able to climb out and unhook the capsule, but unable to read the Russian lettering, she accidentally released the fuel, causing her to be stranded in low Earth orbit once again. Other than the film’s first calamity at the Hubble, the prior was a scene I remembered most from the trailers, but I barely recognized it in the film because so many sights and sounds fed the senses at once—something that could never be felt in 2D, needless to say. As for the space suit, let’s just say that she’s lucky it fit.

Things are a little fuzzy for me at this point in the movie as I’m trying to remember the order of events. At some point, Stone made use of a fire extinguisher to propel herself to the Chinese space station, Tiangong, which resembles Mir, even though the real Tiangong-1 is primarily a small capsule. Inside of the Shenzhou spacecraft, the movie calmed down again as Stone tried to regain communication with Houston, but the freezing temperature, as well as fatigue, began to take its toll. Stone eventually made contact with someone, hoping that it’s mission command. However, she realized that it was a Chinese farmer. After a few “woofs” of a dog, a small spell of 3D tears began as the farmer proceeded to sing lullabies to his baby, causing Stone to think of her daughter. She eventually fell asleep.  Hallucinating, she had a vision of Kowalski knocking on the door and flirting with her like usual, but this was her come to Jesus moment as it led her to an epiphany: reentry is launch. Waking back up, she was able to flip the right switches to send her home.

She took all of Tiangong into de-orbit burn, managing to break away from the outpost. The relatively low speed of her re-entry caused one of the panels to catch fire as the heat and friction from outside rose sharply. Either way, she was able to splash down in the ocean in the eleventh hour, swimming up from the submerged capsule as the plasma-coated pieces of Tiangong saluted her overhead. She crawled onto the shore as if ready to make dirt angels, but she eventually gained her footing in a powerfully low camera angle that made Bullock look like the Statue of Liberty. In black shorts, a grey tank and battle scars she’ll never forget, Dr. Ryan Stone took in the air around her and walked off.

G R A V I T Y.

Reflecting on the ‘sitcom shtick’ mentioned earlier, I’d like to reiterate the film’s faultless use of repetition. The score, composed by Steven Price, had the atmosphere you’d expect from a space movie, but the heavy thumps, timed with the many collisions, hatch closures and other rapid movements, heightened the exteroception. This was done through the use of long crescendos that would lead to a ground-shaking thud. Short musical pieces were used, which were made up of few instruments, allowing for better handling when it came to sound design. To be honest, I barely remember any explosion sound effects in the movie at all! Then again, there’s nothing to carry sound in space.

I’ve read several articles that expressed Alfonso Cuarón’s approach to the film. Accuracy is placed at the bottom of the totem pole in your average feature film, but as a die-hard Space Shuttle fanatic, I deeply appreciate his efforts to keep Gravity as true to reality as possible. That actually made its inaccuracies, present due to logistics and the plot itself, all the more enjoyable. Even the simplicity of the plot is something to be valued, causing my own personal tagline of the movie to be “All in the day’s work.” However, with a little bit of Googling, I also learned of its references to other movies, such as Ed Harris (Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff) serving as CAPCOM, and WALL-E’s use of fire extinguishers as jetpacks. Gravity is a movie that not only expresses Murphy’s Law that anything bad that can happen will happen, but it’s also a movie that could tap into a sense female empowerment—an accomplished mother in mourning beats the odds and survives the impossible.

With only a split second to screw my head back on, I rose to my seat in applause, leaving the screening room barely able to walk straight. But I’ll tell you that it was, and will always be, one of the best $10 that I’ve ever spent. As I drove across the street to the Mall of Louisiana, I could only think one thing: my model Space Shuttle clearly needs a lot more work.

…damn, I wish I could have kept those 3D glasses…

Follow me on Twitter and check out my work on here, YouTube and also Soundcloud. Toodaloo. 

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Images used were found through Google searches.

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