The new blockbuster space jeopardy thriller Gravity (2013) has just been released and is now filling cinemas and movie theatres around the world. The film stars Sandra Bullock as Dr Ryan Stone on her first Space Shuttle mission, along with George Clooney as a manned manoeuvring unit expert and veteran astronaut Matt Kawalski. Their Hubble repair mission goes wrong after space debris alarm and a fierce struggle for survival ensues. To go any further will be to spoil the film’s plot (as expertly directed by Alfonso Cuarón).
This space disaster movie is a reminder of space (and even some aviation) jeopardy films past. Space cadets may remember Marooned (1969) starring Gene Hackman (directed by John Sturgess) whose three man crew find themselves stranded in an inoperable spacecraft, or more recently, Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 (1995), the film based on NASA’s real life near disaster of 1970 (one of its stars, Ed Harris, also plays the unseen capcom mission control voice in Gravity). Clint Eastwood’s Space Cowboys (2000) or Danny Boyle’s underrated Sunshine (2007) also come to mind which, like Marooned, is a reminder that space heroes sometimes have to do the decent thing.
However, there are also (in a way) elements of the bomber crew adventure Memphis Belle (1990) a film which depicted everything that ever went wrong for a B-17 aircraft during their World War 2 missions - but all encapsulated in one mission in one movie. In othe words, everything that has ever gone wrong in a space mission past, present and future, has been included in Gravity‘s similar struggle for survival. Only space cadets will get some of these including a copy of one memorable incident in NASA’s early Mercury space missions.
This film does at least aspire to stay believeable by using conventional space technology rather than the dreamlike technology that some sci-fi movies employ. Some elements that will make true space cadets wince however include having the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, a full multi-module Chinese Tiangong space station all located in orbits with exactly the same inclination and set at only a few miles distance apart. There are also some very dodgy simplified orbital mechanics exhibited as well. And of course, in this piece of fiction, the good-old now-retired Space Shuttle (this one dubbed “Explorer”) is still going.
Likewise, artistic licence allows threatening space debris to be seen with the naked eye at such closing speeds that in reality would have no visual warning. Meantime both George Clooney and his Japanese astronaut fellow spacewalker exhibit such playful behaviour during their extra-vehicular-activities early in the film which, in reality, would probably require them to leave the service after inevitable post mission disciplinary debriefs. By the way, so that the audience can see the characters’ faces – no reflective helmet visors were to be seen deployed.
Still, these moans apart, excepting some early lame banter, at least the script crackles on well, with both George Clooney and Sandra Bullock holding up their twin-lead roles. As it is an especial mention must go to Bullock’s emotionally damaged, fearful and frustrated astronaut performance which may yet lead to a successful Oscar night for the star. Either way, its British special effects team must be a shoe-in for that catagory’s Academy Award. For their special effects and visuals are excellent and with 3D presentations they really do provide an “extra dimension” to the story.
However, while seeing this film in IMAX 3D glory at a proper cinema is probably the best way to do it, the silence of space as excellently portrayed in the film can be somewhat compromised by the sound of crisp packets and popcorn being rustled and chomped in a movie-house’s audience. As they say: “In space no-one can here you scream…but you can still hear scrunching and crunching!”
Summary: As even its detractors admit, manned spaceflight is exciting both in reality and in fictional films. So while Gravity’s spaceflight lack of accuracy will have some experts at the end of their tether (just like the apparently poorly- trained Japanese astronaut character), this tense survival thriller is no let down. Hyperbola’s rating: 8.5/10 Recommended