Not actually science fiction — and that’s a good thing.


On Friday, after a week of DayJob crap, I found I suddenly could not bear to wait until Tuesday (discount movie day at the local cinema) to see Gravity. I wanted outer space and I wanted it now.   And I was right there, passing by the theater!  So Sabine and I caught the 7PM showing.

Because there will be so many spoilers, I’m going to put the rest of this post behind the “read more” fold.

But I’ll say right up front, for those who won’t go on to the next page:

You must see this film.  It was brilliant, astonishing, heart-stopping, heart-rending, mind-bending.   Breathlessly real.

Also — and this is important — it was not science fiction.

It was, in fact, a scrupulously researched, wonderfully well-written techno-thriller.

Because we have all those things.   We have spacesuits, satellites, space stations, space vehicles of several sorts; we have people whose job it is to work in space.   People who, on a daily basis, glance up from the task the are engaged in and see the face of planet Earth — from hundreds of kilometers up.  People who, over dinner, watch the Aurora Borealis by looking down.

None of this is made up, none of it imagined into existence as science fiction.  These things are real.

In the same way that the late Tom Clancy would research, say, the details of a Russian submarine for a book –  because it’s important to get the facts right — Alfonso and Jonas Cuaron took great care to make sure they got both the scientific substance and the technical details as right as they could.  And then, even better, they used those facts as integral elements of the story.   Not just window-dressing; the plot depends on the physics, and on the specific, real details of the hardware.

So: not science fiction.   I can’t tell you how happy this makes me.

Because it drives home to me the fact that all the fantastical futuristic things I read about as a kid, the stuff that made me love science fiction now exists. I’m living in that world.

(This, by the way, is why SF holds first place in my heart.  I love both science fiction and fantasy, and will write them both — but science fiction is the one that has a chance of coming true. We love Tolkein’s elves, and will always love them, and it’s important that we have imagined them; but they never were and never will be real. But when we imagined the ISS, it came true.  We have the Mars explorer Curiosity.   We have Cassini in orbit around Saturn, and astronaut Chris Hatfield playing his guitar and singing hundreds of kilometers above our heads.  We have little Voyager I silently sailing away.)

Much has been made of the silence, and the real bravery it took for the writers and director to insist on the silence.   The silence of space is real, and by bringing the story as close to reality as possible, it makes it more involving and exciting, not less.   And here I’ll mention a specific scene (MAJOR SPOILER HERE):

It’s the scene in which Mission Specialist Ryan Stone is trying to cut the tangled parachute free from the Soyuz escape module so that she can get away from the debris that is on its way — while we see that behind her,  the stuff is already arriving; that behind her, the entire ISS is being shredded into wheeling, flailing fragments; that behind her, immense destruction is being enacted — silently.  Utterly silently.

Absolutely, brilliantly terrifying.

Physics is scary, folks.  Those are some cold equations.

So I am hoping that the success of this film will set a new standard.  I’m hoping that Hollywood will finally believe that science, used as accurately as possible, actually contributes to the excitement.   It’s another tool for the writer and director.

Oh, of course there were scientific errors.  You don’t need me to point them out; there are plenty of other sources for that.  (Here’s astronomer Phil Plait’s take on it.)

But I will mention one glaring technical inaccuracy — because it’s a case where art trumped tech specs, and for very good reasons (BIG SPOILER FOLLOWS):

When  Ryan has managed to get herself into the ISS, and she is, for the moment, safe, and completely alone in the empty station.  Weary and drained to the point of collapse, in a semi-daze she moves through the corridors, removing her helmet, gloves, leaving them behind as she drifts forward.  She separates the top and bottom halves of her suit and extracts herself from them.  Clad only in her tank-top and little gym-type shorts, she can stay awake no longer and falls asleep: a nearly naked human being, floating, helpless in exhaustion , alone.

Nope.  You don’t wear shortie shorts and at tank top under your spacesuit.  You wear multiple layers of specialized garments, including a layer to cool, a layer to add pressure,  and under them all an actual diaper.  Because we’re not going to waste air opening and closing the airlock so you can take a bathroom break.  There are no bathroom breaks once you’re in that suit.

But artistically, look at what’s going on in that scene.

Up until that moment all we saw of Ryan was her face.  Her entire body was wrapped in technology: machinery to protect her, give her air, keep out the vacuum, to keep her alive.

And after having endured all that tech-embraced terror, having come through to the other side,  she emerges from that suit — and we see what a fragile, vulnerable, precious and tender object the human body is.

For that to be communicated that strongly, the contrast has to be complete.   We need to see the flesh, unprotected.

It’s artistically a moving moment.  And beautifully framed, perfectly arranged visually. 

Absolutely worth the loss  of the tech-spec accuracy.

Oh, I could say lots more… but I must stop now.    Maybe I’ll say more in the comments.

But — really, go see it for yourself.



4 Responses to “Not actually science fiction — and that’s a good thing.”

  • Sabine Kirstein Says:

    I’m glad you asked me to go with you. What a wonderful film. Inspiring, exhilarating, moving, dazzling… and more. I love it when art and science combine to make something that works on so many levels.

  • Lindig Says:

    I’ve been dithering about this movie. Great reviews, good actors, etc etc. But I’m not big on movies in general (well, crowds, really) (in the dark, yet). I’m also not too fond of being scared (it always feels like manipulation, and it is). Howsomever, it sounds sooo good, I may just have to do it, not least because your review is excellent.

  • pointoforigin Says:

    I just saw it and your review is spot on. ; ) Wow, what an edge of your seat, heart in your throat movie. And it is gorgeous. Seeing it in IMAX 3-D was double awesome.

  • Deb Says:

    Exactly! I loved this film. I loved the silence. It really conveyed the terror and the vastness of space. Sure it had some nits, but considering movies today excessive liberties of physics/reality, the ones this one had were incredibly minor.

    I just want to see this movie again!