Leave it to scientists to spoil the fun.
Alfonso Cuaron’s taut space-survival film Gravity has proven popular with critics and audiences alike. An immersive technical achievement and white-knuckle entertainment, Gravity was the movie to see this week and the office conversation topic of choice to divert you from the Kurtz-ian madness of your job. Or maybe that’s just where I work.
As if viewers weren’t aware that movies—particularly ones set in outer space and featuring Sandra Bullock as a doctor—involve a suspension of disbelief, astrophysicists and other scientifically smart people were waiting with baited breath to bog down the internet with lists of the impossibilities contained in an escapist film about an astronaut who hopscotches from space station to space station with the aid of a fire extinguisher. Among the more prominent figures to bring Gravity down to Earth was astrophysicist and occasional The Daily Show guest Neil deGrasse Tyson, who amusingly vented over the movie’s flaws on Twitter.
Among other fun facts, Tyson pointed out that the story’s pivotal satellite debris orbits east to west while nearly all satellites in actuality orbit west to east (which, in the context of the film, would conflict with our own visual language) and that the space stations and satellites depicted in Gravity orbit at levels greater than 100 miles, yet they are within the same sight plane in the movie. The enjoyable New York Times piece “An Astronaut and a Writer at the Movies” also shares gripes over Gravity’s inaccuracies.
I understand the frustrations of Tyson and others; it can be irksome when an artist plays loose with the facts regarding a topic for which you have advanced knowledge and personal passion. Though the details can indeed be devilish, Cuaron—the gifted director of the great Y Tu Mama Tambien and the underappreciated Children of Men—disguises Gravity’s cheats within the framework of the story and its visual presentation; I believe the Hubble, International Space Station and Chinese space station are in the same orbit not because I am a moron, but because in the world the film creates they are shown on the same stratum and because George Clooney’s character, who by virtue of being played by George Clooney is simultaneously charming, authoritative and trustworthy, tells us so.
While Gravity is not quite as great as its acclaim suggests (it benefits in part from arriving on the heels of a dismal cinematic summer), it is exhilarating to experience. If you haven’t already done so, submit yourself to Gravity’s pull; just silence your cell phones and your astrophysicists first, and return to reality later.