Wednesday, October 09, 2013

GRAVITY - High praise plus a few quibbles

We watched Alfonso Cuarón's new film Gravity yesterday and enjoyed it immensely. Fantastic to watch -- especially in 3-D -- tensely edited and that rare combination, a vivid action flick that is also an actor's movie.  

Sandra Bullock took us by the throat and gut and held on.

gravity-movie-posterI hope that Cuarón will become a supremely powerful voice in Hollywood, so long as he stays away from the cocaine that has fried 90% of the directors and producers, whose few remaining neurons actually believe that mindless remakes and poisonous dystopias constitute "creativity." Gravity is the kind of inspiration that might start changing that.

While watching Gravity, I succeeded yet again at my mental trick of filing away quibbles for later while enjoying a film.  If you are  either a scientist or a professional storytelly (I'm both) you have to do that or you'll never enjoy another flick -- and you'll be murdered by the person sitting next to you in the theater!  In this case the mental quarantine was easy.  Lots to enjoy and the quibbles were bearable.

Still, you came here for insights and details and scientific cavils, so I won't scrimp. Time to reach into that bag where I stuffed the carps and quibbles. Let's pull them out and see if there are any real scientific boners. I hear that Neil deGrasse Tyson has offered a series of critical tweets on this matter.  I have not read them yet, though I'll look them over, after compiling the following list.


* The Hubble Telescope orbits WAY higher than the Space Station. Past repair missions could barely reach it.  Should have made it a different-future scope. The premise situation is scientifically broken... and I don't care.

* Two stations would not remain orbiting close to each other, even if they started with identical parameters.  The orbits would precess apart.  In fact, Gravity (the movie) makes Low Earth Orbit (LEO) seem about the size of Los Angeles County... but it's way, way bigger. No fix for this. Just grin & bear it.

gravity-2013-official-movie-trailer-1024x575*  The biggest flaw others have mentioned is that if both astronauts are at rest with respect to the ISS, one could not be pulling the other away from it.  There is a fix! Clooney should have said "the station was set rotating by a hit. We're at the end of a swinging bola. Let me go or you'll be torn loose."  But to do that, the station should be shown slowly spinning.  That would've done it.

(Side note: Clooney might have done what one of my characters did once. Taken off the now useless jet pack and thrown it away from the station, possibly emparting enough momentum to send himself toward it. Still, his fading away reminded me of Talby's departure with the Phoenix Asteroids, in Dark Star. The dream sequence was perfectly done.

* Had I been advising, I'd have added a couple of lines about how Bullock would aim the Soyuz capsule NOT at the station but away from it. "Up to drift back..." starts the nursery rhyme taught to all students of orbital dynamics.  If she had recited that, it would have looked and sounded cool to 99% and 1% would have nodded YESSSSSS!

sandra-bullocks-new-movie-gravity-is-an-extreme-4-d-thrill-ride* All right, the effects of debris were amplified maybe FOUR orders of magnitude.  No possible combination of mere satellite parts could have done all that... and I couldn't care less. It was sooooo cool.

* Still, they would not see clouds of approaching supersonic debris. Again, poetic license, but if it's slow enough to identify stuff, then it is too slow to smash a space shuttle to bits. (Still, Clooney's astronaut's crisis mode descriptive monologue is exactly what a test pilot or "right stuff" astronaut is supposed to do.  Well-portrayed.)

Nevertheless, let me editorialize: the debris problem in orbit is getting dire and it's about time some attention was drawn to it.  I portray something being done about it in the first chapter of my recent novel EXISTENCE. (You can see an image here.)

* I did wonder why Clooney and Bullock didn't try to replenish oxygen from the shuttle, which would have plenty of undamaged gear lying about. Like spare oxygen packs? Clooney could have said seven words about that being impossible now. Ah well.

I've got a dozen others but they all fall into the realm of acceptable things I'd have suggested in a meeting… then shrugged when refused.  What matters is that no kid learned something horribly dumb.  It put techies and scientists and science in superb light.

gravity-movieThose who say "but it made space look dangerous!" are dolts.  Of course it's dangerous! That won't deter the brave, it will attract them!  Um, ever heard of 10,000 years of soldiers? This terrific film shows the great allure of the Final Frontier. Its explorers must bear the same skill and courage and honor of war… without the evil deeds or vile consequences.

Turning away from our petty bickerings.  Looking outward. It's exactly what we need.

== The quibbles of Neil deGrasse Tyson ==

All right, now I'll look at Neil's famous twitter jibes about the film.

No it should NOT have been named "Zero Gravity."  There's plenty of gravity in orbit.  It's part of the problem.  Bad buzzer sound for Neil on that one.

I agree that Sandra Bullock's character servicing a telescope from her background as a medical doctor is iffy.  Kind of like "Armageddon's" rule: it is easier for oil drillers to learn to be astronauts than for astronauts to use a drill. Um, sure, right.  Still, shrug it aside.  Maybe she's just an irreplaceable, polymath genius. That's certainly consistent with the rest of the film, and more power to her.

Neil doesn't glom onto my solution for why Clooney would be tugged away from ISS -- because of rotation from an earlier hit.

Alas, his tweet about being unimpressed with zero-gee effects was just -- well -- kinda churlish. C'mon they were great!

Yes, Neil, all satcoms are not in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). But neither are they all at geosynchronous orbit (GEO).  TDRSS and GPS and most of those used by NASA for LEO comms are much lower down… but still likely immune to a LEO level debris blast.  True… folks would not "lose their Facebook." Tyson got that buzzer-penalty right.  Yellow flag!  (But scaring folks about Facebook might get millions to agitate for space debris cleanup!)

Funny thing… I offered about twice as many real physics quibbles as Neil. (So there!)  Still we both agreed, it's a terrific flick!  All of these little cavils only go to show what a large fraction of this hugely ambitious film Alfonso Cuarón and his team got right.

Now... if only we take the hint.  Stop the petty squabbling over picayune inanities that enemies of civilization want us to fight over.  

Resume being a forward-looking people who take seriously our duty to future generations.  And who see the universe as beckoning us. Forward.


Fish said...

I think they were supposed to still be moving relative to the ISS, and the parachute straps were stretching and slowing them down. This held up on a second viewing -- the straps could be seen to be shifting, and Bullock is snapped back towards the station once Clooney lets go. But, no doubt, it was very poorly conveyed visually, and I very well might be inventing excuses! Seems like such a weird thing to get so blatantly wrong, in an otherwise exceptional portrayal of freefall.

My big complaint? Tears don't work like that in freefall! They don't drift away in tidy teardrops, they build up over your eyes in a big messy blob.

Ann Wilkes said...

I just posted my own review of Gravity yesterday morning
My biggest problem was with Clooney's character, the more experienced astronaut - with more oxygen - letting go. I didn't see how that had to be and saw a dozen ways in which his continued presence would have helped Ryan survive. I wish they had just killed him rather than have him seemingly abandon her. I just couldn't buy that he had to let go. Why couldn't he hand over hand back to her while the rope was still taught? That, more than any other liberty they took with respect to distances and orbits, bugged the heck out of me. And no, I don't have abandonment issues.

Lucius said...

Just saw the movie earlier today. My quibble has to do with Ryan's re-entry. Her capsule is blazing as it smashes through the atmosphere, then, suddenly, no fire and the parachute pops out. How'd that happen?

WuzZappnin said...

Gravity, my review:

Starring Sandra Bullock as "I'm a doctor dammit!" Bones, inexperienced first time astronaut and medical specialist inexplicably doing complex electromechanical repairs to the Hubble Space Telescope while George Clooney, playing himself as Buzz Lightyear, been there done that cowboy astronaut, does untethered whee, whee wheelies around the whole magnificent 3D scene, doing fuck knows what all apart from making smart ass remarks about how good looking he, George Clooney, is and how Bones really wants to jump his bones.

Then the space debris comes and Buzz Lightyear gets to play George Clooney playing Tim Robbins playing Buzz Lightyear doing a heroic self sacrifice in a scene stolen straight out of Mission to Mars.

Apart from George Clooney phoning in this performance, and whoever thought the Clooney part needed to be a montage caricature of stupid astronauts acting the fool but somehow coming through when the going gets tough, this was a pretty good movie. Sandra Bullock was exceptional; the special effects great; and the story was good too, even with far more than the allowable quota of technological rabbits pulled out of the hat.

ches said...

It was a great movie. The quibbles are good science practice, though. I spotted a few things not mentioned here:
- the hurricane in the background in the opening sequence rotated in the clockwise direction, a rare southern cyclone. Looked great, though.
The thrusters on the spacesuits fired in the wrong direction for the reactions seen. This drove me crazy, and was a sad loss of a minor teaching moment.
- the tethered problem was wrong, of course. Could have been right either by rotation (as mentioned) or from tidal forces if the teher had been long enough (miles).
we scifi fans are used to puzzles in emergencies. In this case, why didn't she go pick up Clooney, not far away, once she had the Soyuz to fly around.

ideonexus said...

Story Musgrave was an MD and flew on all five shuttles. Bullock's character was a Biomedical Engineer. Her work at the hospital would have been research, not treating patients.

The film was called "Gravity" because of the final scene of the film. After everything she's been through, "Gravity" is synonymous with "paradise."

locumranch said...

Sounds like the space wreck in 'Dark Star' was more creative & realistic than the one in 'Gravity'. Also much funnier.

Left in free fall, the Dark Star (circa 1974) captain 'shoots' the gravity well, saving himself with a surfboard in a manner that presages F. Baumgartner's Red Bull-sponsored world record parachute jump in 2012, whereas Clooney & Bullock try to save themselves with emotive scene chewing & a 1970-style Soyuz capsule ??

I'd prefer the company of the Dark Star's crew, including Doolittle, Powell, Pinback or even the self-doubting bomb, to Bullock & Clooney's remake of Jim Henson's 'Pigs in Space'.

Either way, I'll probably see Gravity when it splashes down on cable but not sooner.


David Brin said...

Yipe, locumranch needs either to up the meds or else outgrow being 16. How much of life's good things are ruined by addiction to snakiness!

I loved DARK STAR but dig it... Dolittle wipes out. Sorry. That's clear. Commander Powell and Talby are the survivors.

J. Daniel Sawyer said...


Man, now I *have* to go see Gravity. Thanks for the review!

I stopped by because I ran across something in New Scientist that I thought would tickle you in the culture war/economics arena. There's a guy up at the University of Conneticuit who is claiming that he can predict, to a high degree of accuracy, culture wars and governmental crises. Sounds daft, but the further reading is actually interesting. I don't understand nearly enough of it to have a solid opinion on the matter (other than reflexive skepticism), but it struck me as something you'd find interesting. Here's the link:

-Dan Sawyer

Acacia H. said...

Despite all the good reviews, I still refuse to see it. There is one reason.

The initial trailer.

You see, for me movies have to work with inertia. When I first see a movie trailer, it may very well excite me and make me enthused to see it. But by the time the movie comes around, the inertia from that trailer peters out and I end up not viewing the film. This has happened with good and popular films (for instance, I've not bothered with "The Avengers" despite the hype and still haven't seen it despite it being on DVD).

"Gravity" lost me with that first trailer with a female astronaut screaming her lungs out and then the hint at the end she's stranded in space. And while I know what happens and have read the spoilers... an object at rest tends to stay at rest. I have zero interest in seeing this. I am less likely to see this film than I was to see "Revenge of the Sith" (which I ultimately saw despite knowing it would suck because my friend begged me to go. He apologized afterward).

I look forward to the inevitable tangent in discussion (or a new blog post) for when we move beyond this movie. It's not worth my time.

Rob H.

sociotard said...

I'm being contrary and I'm going to keep on the preceding argument.

Tx participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy of big business to a horrible degree, when the states should make a compact not to cut each others' throats with giveaways.

Be very careful David. You are touching a dangerous elitism. Texas chose a low tax low service government over the high tax high service model. That was their choice to make. And those Californians who chose to go to Texas? That was their choice to make. Respect that choice. Do not advocate other elites colluding to prevent them from making that choice.

(caveat: some services, like environmental protection, should be common among states, because they can't be constrained by state lines)

teen sex, pregnancy and abortion rates?
Teen Pregnancy Rate: (pregnancies per 1,000 females aged 15-19, 2008)
US: 68
CA: 72 cite
TX: 85 cite

So CA is better than TX here, but CA is still worse than the average state. Way to be proud of your C average.

Teen abortion Rate: (abortions per 1,000 females aged 15-19, 2008)
US: 18
CA: 24 cite
TX: 11 cite

So, TX cleanly beating both national average and California here. You could argue they have laws that unfairly affect a woman's rights over her body, but hey, you chose the metric.

(I had a harder time finding CA teen sex rates)

Syphilis, cases per 100,000 pop cite
US: 14.9
CA: 15.9
TX: 24.9

Gonorrhea, cases per 100,000 pop cite
US: 104.2
CA: 73.9
TX: 123.0

Okay, California wins this round.

domestic violence
Yep, California wins here too, but you are still above the national average. Don't be too proud of yourselves.

Hmm, how about I pick a criteria? How about forclosure rates during the last crash?
2012 forclosure rate, 1/X housing units cite
US: 728
CA: 430
(big numbers being good here.)

Anonymous said...

Re Gravity...

So, no actual Glass Bottomed Boat Award this time.

The Glass Bottomed Boat (1966)

From IMDb:

Factual errors

When Bruce and Jennifer are stargazing, Bruce points out the planet Venus next to the nearly full moon. Venus is closer to the Sun than Earth. Therefore it would only appear near the moon when the moon is in the waxing or waning crescent phase.


1966. I caught it. I mentioned it while in the theater.

1966. I was in the 7th grade.


If only The Postman had been made before Waterworld....

locumranch said...

Like Sociotard, I'd like to keep beating a dead horse:

The Other Great Superpower, the USSR, dubbed the 'Evil Empire' by Reagan, unexpectedly collapsed in a 5-year period, starting with the cessation of economic aid to Soviet satellites in 1986, followed by its withdrawal from Afghanistan & the subsequent collapse of Communist Party discipline in 1989, culminating in the Belavezha Accords & the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991.

Sound familiar??

The US government shuts down in 2013 following the collapse of political party discipline, withdraws from Afghanistan, ceases economic aid to its satellites and then, like the good old USSR, its gone in 5 years. POOF. So much for 'object permanence'.

And, just for the record, Powell was frozen dead before the wreck; Talby glows, recedes & diminishes; and Doolittle was the only survivor of note because 'It's better to burn out than to fade away'. My My, hey hey.


Chris Radcliff said...

Some excellent points, and I agree wholeheartedly overall. I went into the theater looking for Firefly levels of accuracy (not Apollo 13), and was pleasantly surprised. Every surprised grunt Sandra Bullock let out felt exactly right; I'm sure I would have had the same reactions, if not the same bravery.

Yes, rotating the ISS a bit would have made the letting-go scene work from a physics standpoint. It wouldn't have found Clooney's motivation, though. Thinking back on it, I would much rather have seen him lose his cool and scramble unsuccessfully to get the jetpack off, only to realize at the last minute that he was endangering both of them and let go. Then it would have been satisfying.

That also might have given more weight to her decision to end it in the Soyuz. Maybe. Having him drop in and "mansplain" was a brilliant move, though. I wanted to punch Cuaron until I realized she was dreaming up her own solution. Bravo for that.

Oh, one last nitpick, though. There's a gosh-darned pen floating around as she hits atmosphere. Someone chose to animate that pen (or hang it from a wire), at one of the few times it should have been feeling weight. Oh well.

David Brin said...

Locum, Commander Powell was dead but not "dead." You hear his voice at the end and Doolittle says "Commander Powell made it! He always was lucky."

Sociotard's own stats seem to support my point. And note, Texas is by for the richest and most advanced Red State and California is the most heavilypopulated Blue state, filled with immigrants and modern urban problems. Even so.

sociotard said...

Yeah, except for the low abortions and their weathering the economic collapse a lot better and you're still an elitist for not wanting state reps to deliver the kind of government their people want.

But that's to be expected. You chose the other arena's of comparison! You avoided areas where Texas did a lot better and, in your Elitist everyone-should-value-things-the-way-I-do, decided that the places where California did worse were less important anyway.

And yes, you usually like to compare all the blue states to all the Red, but I don't think that is a fair comparison. Texas is as Red politically as they come (except Austin) and a much better match for CA. Pick on a state your own size.

Would you like me to keep finding places where Texas does better?

David Brin said...

I am walking away from your rudeness, Sociotard. Sure Texas does better in some things. I told you it is the Elite of Red America, except for Virginia and North Carolina. Now dig this. If gerrymandering were reversed in Tx it would be following Va and NC into the Blue camp and you know it.

As for your accusation of ma "Elitist everyone-should-value-things-the-way-I-do" Screw you and the dog whose behind you rode in on. Liar.

sociotard said...

If gerrymandering were reversed in Tx it would be following Va and NC into the Blue camp and you know it.

Bologna. Gerrymandering doesn't affect the popular vote for president. It interprets it screwy, but the overall is still the overall.

TX: Romney - 57.2%
VA: Romney - 47.8%
NC: Romney - 50.6%

Texas is gerrymandered. That produces skewed effects in legislature representation. However, VA and NC are gerrymandered too! And it's not as if Texas has just as many democrats as those two states, just being held back by the gerrymander. 57.2% is a landslide. Even without gerrymandering, TX would be far darker red than those two states. Less red in legislature than it is now, but still way more red than those two states.

As for your accusation of me "Elitist everyone-should-value-things-the-way-I-do" Screw you and the dog whose behind you rode in on. Liar.

Your exact phrase:
Tx participates in the divide-and-conquer strategy of big business to a horrible degree, when the states should make a compact not to cut each others' throats with giveaways.

Compacts between states. Colluding. No state can choose the low tax, low service, low regulation model, even if their citizens want it. The elite politicians making agreements with each other to make sure those poor silly citizens don't have the chance to get what they want.

Unless you want to clarify what you meant by "giveaways". But then, you just walked away.

Kent said...

The movie left a bad taste. The message wasn't that space was dangerous. The message was that exploration of space was *futile*, because the *entire* human effort at space exploration can be wiped out in single, almost incidental, disaster.

Acacia H. said...

I've been wondering what happened to Sociotard. Normally he's the diehard liberal of the group. Now he's a Texas Cheerleader, complete with skirt and pompoms. oO

Rob H.

locumranch said...

Powell survives in the same manner that Clooney's character survives in 'Gravity': They were both 'lucky' in the sense that the living envy the dead, speaking from beyond the grave as hopeful 'pigments' of the protagonist's imagination.

And, some more bad news:

(1) "Anyone lived in a Pretty How Town", by EE Cummings, is actually a tragedy as anyone was kissed & loved by 'no one' at all;

(2) Hamlet's father remained dead despite a pivotal & well-reviewed dramatic appearance in the Rampart scene;

(3) The 'chief' protagonist in 'One flew over the cuckoo's nest' does NOT actually escape at the novel's conclusion, telling the tale in retrospect from the asylum closet, escaping only in metaphor; and

(4) The Gipper, being dead, no longer cares if we live, die or 'win one' for him.


sociotard said...

I've been wondering what happened to Sociotard. Normally he's the diehard liberal of the group. Now he's a Texas Cheerleader, complete with skirt and pompoms

I just got sick of David constantly ragging on the red states. "Name one thing they do better," he taunts.

It isn't so much that I like Texas better than Cali. I probably wouldn't want to live either place. But David's constant preening about Blue State superiority, when he can't handle a little mud thrown at his precious little California.

In short, I'm being contrary.

But I'm still very liberal in some respects (like wanting the US to abstain from foreign wars, loosen up on the drug war, etc)

David Brin said...

Bah. You keep "quoting" me with things I never ever said. That makes you a liar. I never said red states do nothing better. I said they have no business screeching at the productive part of the country that they are vastly more moral, better at raising kids and overtaxed.

I have repeatedly said that (for example) when Red Politicians and rabble rousers plunge us into horribly futile wars, it is men and women in Red Counties who step up more often than from cities to do the actual fighting.

But when Civil War is so blatant, there really is no recourse. Recent events show that negotiation simply is not possible and one side is entirely (and deep-culturally) to blame for that. The culture of nostalgic-romantic rage must be defeated, as it was in other generation, if America is to be anything like the forward-looking and agile and generously powerful force in the world that it has to be.

sociotard said...

Okay, it looks like most of your "Name me one" requests were specific to national, not state, health. There was this nugget, though.

May 17, 2012:
UnknownSomething they glossed over in the Pew study...

Most of the states that did better in "economic mobility" also had higher rates of outward migration - to the states that had lower "economic mobility."

In other words, yes - people Texas and Florida and a couple of the others had a lower level of increase in wages - mostly because of the increased competition for jobs. Which drives down wages or keeps them stable.

Conversely, states like New Jersey had increases in relative "mobility" (both in state and versus the country as a whole) - because they had fewer people competing for jobs.

"All of the poor people moved to Texas and Florida because New Jersey's low end job market sucks" isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of the blue state model.

BrinOTOH unknown had a good point about southward migration from "advanced" and socially mobile states. But so? Can you find for me the OUTCOMES stats in which Reds do better? From domestic violence to education, to obesity to teen pregnancy...

I can name one. Volunteering for military service. I respect and honor that! But note, that constitutes - overall - an out migration.

So you did mention the higher military service, but you segued it straight to the outmigration. "every June they watch their brightest leave."

And the blue states watch their average kids with middle class aspirations and the desire for a house that doesn't get foreclosed on do the same. Which was my original point.

sociotard said...

Oh, and the Out-migration thing. Which is why I pointed out that California has a Net Outmigration for its poor classes, so the problem is not that poor people keep swarming your state.

Dan said...

Dr. Brin,

I enjoyed your commentary! I had similar observations when I left the theater, but overall it was a great story! I hope when they film some of your space adventures they pay as much attention to detail.

Clooney being "pulled" away form ISS bothered me, and I also wondered why he didn't eject the useless jet pack.

What about the fire on the ISS? How did the flames convect in zero G? The effect was cool, especially the Jacob's Ladder effect when we first see the frying circuits, but visible flames? Really?

Also, as Bullock approaches the Chinese station, her helmet is still floating around the Soyuz cabin. It should have been resting on the aft wall.

Someday Hollywood will get it spot on. For now, I think their efforts with Gravity are to be commended. I hope this raises the bar for the next space film.

Brian said...

I've been waiting for your comments (big grin)

I thought Clooney was trying to perhaps add some levity with the Facebook comment. Doesn't matter, I loved the spectacle of the movie. Such an intense ride (I saw it twice within a few days and it was just as intense the second time, even though I knew everything that was about to happen)

Rhonda Palmer said...

Hey, did anyone notice the huge metaphor floating alongside the actors throughout the movie? Sandra in the fetal position inside the ISS? Letting go of any thought of someone else saving her butt? Dying to self and being reborn? Give that director a poetic license and put him on the road!!

David Brin said...


Yoshi Moto said...

Any thoughts about Pacific Rim, David?

Maybe giant monsters and robots are not your cup of science fiction tea but I think the optimistic, anti-dystopic message of the movie and Guillermo del Toro's visual spectacle would get a nod from you.

Donavan S. Moye said...

I found the film technically, visually amazing. I kept thinking, "How the bleep did they film this??!". Unfortunately I found the characters/dialogue very wanting. The film was tense and exciting, but it never really engaged me emotionally.

But I must say, as a science nerd, Clooney zipping around in the opening scene got my eyes rolling...

And is it just me, or did anyone else notice how often there was a *mechanical pencil* floating near Sandra during her interior scenes? I thought for sure it was foreshadowing. Like, maybe, she'd use the pencil to save herself one last time... Weird.