It's hard to create a gripping and accurate space drama.
Obviously storytellers have to balance level of detail with narrative flow. And the constraints of space physics make many staples of conventional space movies difficult or impossible. You can’t do many things in space, but it often takes a while to explain why you can’t do them. And most important of all, something new has to happen. When everything goes according to plan, and it starts to seem like it’s all been done before, nobody cares. (Witness the public’s attention span when the real thing was first televised. During Apollo, for the first time in human history, exploration became a shared event while it was happening, and the telecasts of Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 were the most widely-watched ever. But viewership fell off rapidly after that; Apollo 13 became a global story only because it nearly ended in disaster. Which is unfortunate, science-wise. The latter missions were among the most adventurous explorations ever undertaken by man, and great advances for science, but they ended up feeling, to the public, like reruns.)
In short, space drama often seems to require space disaster. (Or, at least, near-disaster.)
Ron Howard’s Apollo 13 got us excited without sacrificing too many facts; it faithfully depicted the fragile technology that took humans a quarter of a million miles away, and largely hewed to the true chronology of the accident and its aftermath. But it probably overplayed the arguments among the crew members, and the friction between them and their ground controllers. And it certainly played up the physical motions, turning a dramatic but slowly-unfolding crisis into a spectacle of speed.
But space is a stately place. Stanley Kubrick understood this, and 2001 took great pains to be realistic, black monoliths and failed AI predictions aside. (In some non-space ways, it was remarkably prescient, as other authors have already pointed out. The astronauts scanning their reading tablets during their meals certainly resemble the zombified specimens one sees staring at phones and Kindles in every public space, yours truly included.) The spacecraft don’t zoom or move quickly, they coast. It takes a long time for things to happen, and the tension comes in part from being so completely enslaved by the laws of physics and orbital mechanics.
Gravity’s a notch below both movies in terms of realism, Still, it owes a lot to the latter, and it’s a cut above most of what passes for a movie these days; as a moviegoer, I’m inclined to praise it just because we need to support directors who can hold a shot for longer than 3 seconds. The camera stares for an uncomfortably long time here, taking us inside the helmet to show us the confusion an astronaut would feel when tumbling through space, then stepping back to show the larger scale of things. We see how mute and impotent human life truly is, how it can only occupy the tiniest speck of that vast black canvas. And in all cases, the camera’s patient—not as sedately minimalist as Kubrick’s, which gave us sequences so slow they were only enjoyable because every frame was as beautiful as a painting, but far less active than was the case in Apollo 13. It trusts us to pay attention.
The screenwriters betray that trust, in the interests of good storytelling. The sequence of events that forms the story’s spine is laughable to anyone with a decent knowledge of orbital mechanics. The Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station orbit on different planes—their orbits are inclined at different angles relative to the center of earth. And (partial plot spoiler) a Chinese space station would surely be on a different plane as well. And movement between planes is tremendously difficult. (I read somewhere that moving from an orbit with, say, a 28-degree inclination—typical for something launched from Cape Canaveral—to an orbit around the equator would take as much energy as it takes to go to the moon.)
Does it matter? Most people won’t notice these things, and the movie’s good enough that those who do still end up swept along for the ride, holding tenuously on to our brains as our bodies embark on a viscerally thrilling cinematic ride. And even astronauts were inclined to not care. (Buzz Aldrin, for instance, extravagantly praised the movie. He’s long been calling for humanity to continue its evolution and become multi-planetary; he surely knows it won’t happen soon, but he seems glad that someone’s at least taking the time to imagine exciting things happening in outer space.)
Oddly enough, the movie’s message is the opposite of his. It depicts a chain reaction effect known as the Kessler syndrome, whereby debris from a destroyed satellite could destroy other satellites and cause still more debris. Some theorists (OK, people I read about on Wikipedia) contend that this could essentially close down space, rendering it unsafe for human habitation. Sandra Bullock’s character flees space in the wake of this disaster, choosing to return to earth rather than die in orbit.
And that’s perhaps the movie’s most true-to-life thought, its most accurate sentiment.
Most planners assumed Apollo would be the stepping stone to further exploration, but so far it’s been anything but; no human has gone beyond earth orbit since the crew of Apollo 17 returned to earth more than 40 years ago. For Apollo had unintended consequences, in that it showed us how fragile and unique our home is; as Gene Cernan said, “We went to explore the moon, but, in fact, we discovered the earth.” And the movie ends, perhaps, with us taking that one last ego-defeating step back home from space. Bullock’s character survives a perilous re-entry and accidental splashdown in a lake. She crawls ashore like she’s retracing eons of animal and human evolution—swim, crawl, walk. But more importantly, she does it with gratitude, rather than longing for more; she savors the feel of earth between her toes and fingers while above her, the last of humanity’s space outposts re-enter the atmosphere in a fiery blaze, a funeral pyre for our orbital dreams. So Gravity’s message, then, is the same as Apollo’s was. There may be billions of worlds out there, but we have no way of getting to one that has the ability to sustain us. It’s a harsh message, but in that sense, it makes the movie realistic; it’s the same message, in fact, as The Wizard of Oz. We’re already where we’re supposed to be. We have to make the most of it. There’s no place like home.
(Gerald Brennan is the author of the recently-released and even-more-realistic space drama Zero Phase. Despite everything printed in this article, he’d still go into space in a heartbeat, if given the chance.)