Thursday, October 17, 2013

Gravity - the Movie

So I am back from Gravity.  It is surprisingly hard to find this playing in 2D. (I try like crazy to avoid 3D, since I don't like watching films in this format and feel the format should fail (yet again).  It seems totally propped up by studio greed, despite occasional films that might benefit from it.). 

Not sure how much of a spoiler it is to say that one damn thing after other happens to Bullock and Clooney -- either you sit back and enjoy the ride or you find yourself turned off by the sheer implausibility of it.  I guess I am somewhere on the fence, but heading into Frustration Land* over the implausibilities.  Plenty of spoilers ahead if you keep reading.

There are a number of people tweeting about some of the implausibilities.  I find a few of these to be relatively minor things I was willing to overlook, specifically Sandra Bullock not wearing some type of adult diaper and her hair wasn't floating all over the place.  Her hair was fairly cropped and perhaps she decided that it made sense to have some gel in it to hold it in place. Now whether she would have totally sweated through this "product" is a different question, and I do think for verisimilitude she should have been a bit sweatier after emerging from the space suit (well, ok a lot sweatier, but I would have settled for a slightly sweaty Sandra).  (In general, she seems to be able to get into and out of these suits pretty quickly, especially for a rookie.)  One commentator had said that Clooney should not have been goofing off in the jet pack at the start of the movie, but I am willing to accept the plotline that he was testing an experimental jet pack with a longer range and thus this justified his zooming about.  I thought that at least was plausible.  And one major error that I thought I had caught -- why does the stupid Chinese capsule sink so fast when they were designed to float -- turns out to not be an error.  The Russian (and apparently Chinese) capsules are designed to land on land, not water (the way the American ones do).  I find this pretty crazy -- it just seems that a water landing would be easier on astronauts, but I guess Russia and China are geographically less amenable to having effective control over a large body of reasonably temperate water.

This begins shading into more serious objections from actual astronauts, mostly about how damn hard it is to grab anything in a spacesuit and that most of the grabbing of tethers or hoses, let alone grabbing onto random bits and pieces of space shuttles to stop one's movement, would simply be impossible.  Granted this would have shortened the movie dramatically (as they both would have floated off into space), but it is a quite serious objection.  I don't think there is any way to dodge this one; it just is part of movie characters having near-supernatural powers the rest of us wouldn't have, faced in the same situation.  But I am willing to give them a pass here.

Now I don't have an objection to Clooney's character telling the doctor about oxygen deprivation and so on.  (Someone has raised this.)  She has plenty of theoretical knowledge, but he has that practical experience, and she is a panicking rookie.  That seemed plausible.  What seems absurd (to me and some random strangers) is that Bullock would know more about electronics than the NASA crew.  Seriously, what doctor would build their own imaging technology (or whatever) and then go through the bother of installing it in space?  Sure, it is basically a MacGuffin, but every time Cuarón attempts to explain it, it gets worse.  It is going to be some sort of sensing technology used in hospitals, but they decide to test it in space first?  (This is from when Bullock explains to Clooney something that he already should know...)  That makes no kind of sense on five or six levels, starting with there isn't anything one would probe in space that would have any relevance for a terrestrial hospital and ending with space missions are so freaking expensive that this would hardly be the place to test out experimental electronics.  This little back and forth definitely made me question the intelligence of the script.  And frankly it is so unnecessary.  There is no valid reason Bullock's character has to be a doctor than virtually any other technician or scientist type (with a legit reason for being in space and spacewalking), just so long as this is their first space walk.  Other than Cuarón perhaps imagines that scientists are naturally colder than doctors.

Now we start getting into the serious, serious objections.  Neil deGrasse Tyson certainly has said the most about the problems with the movie, but still enjoyed it anyway.  One thing that bothered him a little, but didn't bother me was that the debris from the satellite should have been orbiting west to east, not east to west.  I simply didn't know this and it is hard to say it spoils the movie.  Now here is an interesting example of what I thought was fundamentally wrong, but I am partially wrong and the movie is partially wrong.  It just shows that I am not up on my space stuff.  I thought it was absurd that the debris would be circling the Earth so fast that it would essentially lap the Hubble and the ISS.  It turns out that really isn't what the movie is trying to say.  The Hubble orbits the Earth every 97 minutes (much, much faster than I had imagined), so this is a detail the movie actually gets right.  So if the debris from the blown up satellite suddenly lost all its angular momentum and rained straight down, then indeed the Hubble would pass through it every 97 minutes, which is what Clooney warned about.  However, things in orbit don't work that way, even after being blown up. Communications satellites (and almost certainly spy satellites) are in geosynchronous orbit, meaning they rotate at such a speed as to remain over the same spot on earth.  (An awesome list of such satellites can be found here.)  Which means that most of the debris would begin to descend but continue rotating at largely the same speed as the original satellite (this isn't entirely true as speeds change with altitudes).  Nonetheless, the bottom line is that it is really hard to imagine more than a single pass through the debris (not 3 times as seen in the movie).  If it simply "drops" straight down immediately which is of course impossible, then the Hubble should pass through it only once before it clears.  What this movie seems to be insisting on is a rain of large chunks of debris that goes on for 4-5 hours -- and without any moderating effects of the initial rotational velocity.  Unless I am completely mistaken (and it is quite possible that I am) it seems that by the time the debris got to their level, it would be the Hubble that would be whipping through the debris and having vastly more momentum and knocking the debris away rather than the other way around.  Still dangerous but possibly not quite as catastrophic.  Ironically, that would make the movie a lot closer to Speed.  (I'm pretty sure that it would be Hubble that gains on the debris rather than being caught up in flying debris each 97 minutes the way it is presented.** I will say that this has almost inspired me to dig out my old physics textbooks and actually try to figure this out "for reals" as they say.  If Gravity inspires a few more high school seniors to stick with physics, then that would definitely be a net positive.)

But my biggest beef is that most of these communications satellites are fairly small (2500kg -- about as much mass as a small SUV) and the idea that the fairly small chunks remaining from an explosion would then trigger a chain reaction among a bunch of other satellites and blow them up as well apparently and then escalate this until there was just a huge wave of debris raining "down" (apparently) on Clooney and Bullock is just laughable.  Conservation of momentum, people.  I imagine that the vast majority of satellites would get bumped (maybe quite firmly) but then would be able to stabilize with thrusters (they must have something, right?).  They just aren't going to be able to knock out half or 75% or whatever of the planet's communications satellites with one crazy carom shot.  I realize movie physics are always bad, but this was really just too much for me, and I have to say, it definitely spoiled the entire movie.  And the way that these huge chunks of debris completely spin around the space arm and then Bullock.  I mean yes it is visually exciting, if a little hard on the stomach, but the physics are absurd. 

Similarly, I sensed something was wrong about Clooney having so much momentum that he was going to pull Bullock away from the ISS (after she had come to a stop), though I didn't feel it quite as viscerally as Tyson.  What got me a bit more worked up is right before that when Clooney's jet pack is running out of fuel, so they are just barely edging up to ISS and having trouble maneuvering when the debris comes round again and suddenly, these little bits are causing the whole structure to rotate (or something) in a crazy way.  Then they hit the ISS at a tremendous rate of speed (how?!?) and their tether snaps (as if someone designed the edges of the ISS to be razor sharp or something).  I couldn't buy it, and Cuarón pretty much lost me there, and I never bought into the movie past that point.  (I think for quite a few physicists, the fact that Clooney truly doesn't have to sacrifice himself does pretty much ruin the rest of the movie.)  Forget all the crazy crap that happens on the ISS (with Bullock outracing fire in some of its sections).  And then she finally gets to the Chinese space station when for no apparent reason some bits and pieces of the debris apparently are causing it to descend to earth in an uncontrolled fashion.  It was just too much for me.  The amazing visuals just don't make up for the stupid science.  I also particularly disliked the POV of being jerked around at the end of the tether and some of the POV spinning.  Enough already.  This isn't supposed to be like going to Disneyland.

I guess I would suspend belief (had I had any left) that the ISS and the Chinese space station have been maneuvered onto the same plane and are in visual contact (when this is clearly not the case as some "haters" have pointed out).  But then a space shuttle is servicing the Hubble and this is also on the same plane?  Again, Cuarón is just cramming too much in.  He stuffs in three space disasters when really two would seem sufficient, given that none of this would be remotely survivable.  To my mind, a fairly routine visit to the ISS (with a more defensible explanation for the spacewalk) with then a desperate escape to the Chinese space station would have been actually more enjoyable since I wouldn't be objecting so strongly throughout.

Maybe I am overly sensitive, but I felt even some of the weightlessness was treated as a way to "play" the audience and not really giving the audience full respect.  For instance, all the junk floating about in the three different stations.  This will inspire hours of freeze frame to find the different items, driving up Blu-ray sales.  Perhaps as I type Cuarón is anonymously encouraging a drinking game that involves taking a shot every time a pen floats by...  Again, I am surely reading too much into this.

So did I like anything about the movie?

Another SPOILER warning.

I kind of liked Clooney's reappearance in the Soyez module (a damaged one has still been attached to the ISS and she is trying to use it to get to the Chinese space station).  As Bullock gasps "how did you make it?", he relates that he had enough battery life once he had detached and yada yada yada and gives her a pep talk about not giving up.  Then he says something like landing boosters, main rockets, same difference when she tells him the main rockets are completely empty of fuel, being clipped by debris or something.  (Really, it is amazing how selectively destructive this debris is -- later on it will just manage to sideswipe the Chinese lander just enough to set it on fire but not enough to blow it up -- almost as if it had a mind of its own.)  It is then revealed this is just a hallucination that Bullock is having to inspire her to keep going.  I wonder if this is a subtle shout out to Clooney's role in Solaris (another space epic).  However, I can't help but wonder if this is information that Bullock's character would have had subconsciously?  It seems so far-fetched.  The movie honestly would have hung together so much better had Bullock's character been an engineer (with rocketry as something she did with her dad growing up -- or rather learned in order to to share an interest with him but he still half-rejected her (he of course wanted a boy...) to get that sob story in there).  Now about Solaris: there is an alien presence (the size of a planet!) that can generate apparently solid manifestations from the astronauts' psyches.  Surely that says something about my nitpicking the "small things" when I am willing to suspend disbelief (at least to the point of enjoying Solaris) whereas I can't get past core physical laws being broken by Gravity (at least in my understanding of the physics involved).  But it is just as true that I'm not particularly moved by all these movies where heroes outrun explosions, which is generally impossible.  I just kind of switch off...

I also sort of liked Bullock's emergence on the island, though for an odd reason.  The visuals harkened back just a bit to Tarkovsky's epic version of Solaris where you have this endless opening shot of rain and grass and I think horses.  This is repeated at the end of the movie, though it suddenly becomes apparent that the main character is only imagining he is back on Earth.  I am perversely imagining that Cuarón is putting in a subtle signal that Bullock doesn't actually make it out alive (quite possibly passing away in the Soyez module) and that this is just an escapist dream as she passes away (also see: Gilliam's Brazil, ending of).

I wish I did like it more as it looks amazing, but I think this is a movie that will annoy me more and more as time passes, let alone if I saw it a second time.  I just prefer movies that don't require you to suspend so much belief, so this wasn't the right movie for me.

Edit to add:
So oddly enough deGrasse Tyson was on Bill Maher's Real Time and seemed to indicate that the Kessler effect was a real thing, and something that he was actually quite worried about.  This was about to cause me to start rethinking some of my criticisms of the movie.  However, I have to say, I think he got a bit carried away and was playing to the cameras a bit.  The Guardian finally caught up with Donald Kessler (who first theorized this domino effect) who said that the impact between satellites, particularly those up in geosynchronous orbit (like the spy satellite that kicked everything off) would be measured in years, not minutes.  Currently, impact between satellites is roughly once every 10 years and it might get down to once every 5 years.  So a problem, but nothing like the wall of debris in the movie.  In this cage match, I am going with the real Kessler.  In the comments to the article, someone said there was an anime series (Planetes) about a crew that actually goes around removing space debris.  While probably cost prohibitive, that is something that might have to happen some day.  I may have seen an episode or two of Planetes; it does look like something I might want to check out later.

* Like Candy Land I guess, but, well, more frustrating.  I spend much of my mental energy in these stomping grounds, as apparently everyone that bothers to engage on internet comment boards.  These past two weeks watching Congress engage in literally historical levels of dysfunction (not since the Civil War has Congress been so partisan) have not helped.  You would think that a movie would have been a welcome bit of escapism, but my critical facilities keep kicking in...

** Now no question the way the movie presents it, it seems as if there is this huge wave of space junk that keeps passing Clooney and Bullock -- both going faster and on the same plane as them, which is flat-out impossible for many, many reasons.  I am slightly hopeful that Cuarón really did intend for the stuff to be "above" them, i.e. further from Earth, and passing them on the way to Earth, and it is just the disorientation of weightlessness that makes it hard to tell where it is coming from.  If he just essentially said screw the science, everything is on the same plane, then I just lost any little bit of respect left I had for this movie.  I know I keep overthinking this, but that is just my style...

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