Now, don’t get me wrong. I was at least three or four of the following things: blown away by the technical achievement, on the edge of my seat for the whole ninety minutes, deeply thankful that someone seemed to be making every effort at realism, forgetting I was watching a Sandra Bullock vehicle, wishing I had one of those EVA jetpacks, instinctively dodging the best 3-D shrapnel I’ve ever seen.
Here's the trailer, for those who haven't seen...
But still, Gravity sucked.
I’ll explain. First, let me add the obligatory ***Spoiler Alert***. Although, in truth, there’s little to spoil. The premise of the movie explains the entire plot: Astronauts face the dangers of physics and the harsh realities of space during a “space junk” disaster in low Earth orbit. You can pretty much thread out the disaster movie tropes from there. Which leads me to my first complaint:
Gravity is not a movie. It’s an experience. If anything, it’s a theme park ride relocated to your local multiplex. In fact, if the Universal Studios people aren’t frantically designing a Gravity! ride (ála EPCOT’s Mission:Space starring Gary Sinise) then they’re missing a serious opportunity. Theme park attractions like these make every attempt to be immersive: You’re the astronaut, you’re the subject of the experiment, you’ve been called on to solve the mystery/fight the battle/brave the trial. Gravity was nothing if not immersive, partly due to the amazing cinematography and sound design, but also because the main character was a near blank, easy to imprint one’s own perceptions upon. She had a shallow backstory (that I couldn’t help but think might have disqualified her to be an astronaut based on a psychological evaluation) and an even shallower character arc. In the end her arc mattered little; it’s really your arc that matters in this experience. Does this really make a movie? Like any other good theme park attraction, it left me temporarily breathless, but ultimately looking for the next ride.
My first comment as I left the theater was, “The most unbelievable part of the whole movie was that the U.S. was still flying the space shuttle.” Ha ha ha. But overall, Gravity’s portrayal of the American space program left a sour taste in my mouth. At the beginning of the movie, I thought, “Awesome, we’re still flying. USA. USA. USA.” But the details began to bug me. What were the Americans doing up there? Swapping video cards on the Hubble? (And when, of course, it doesn’t boot up, they resort to blowing the dust off the circuit boards like some greasy Geek Squad counter jockey. Right.) Testing a new hyperactive EVA jetpack and aching to one-up the Russians? Showing off their witty, but multi-cultural, multi-gendered crew? The whole setup was filled with the reasons people hate the space program in general and manned space missions in particular. The public hates failures, from minor technical snafus to major crew loss disasters; propaganda stunts, from quiet nods to diversity to broad geopolitical hat-waving; and tax dollars spent on any of it, from cowboy showboating to incremental and arcane scientific achievements. It was all there on the screen, enough to stoke the anti-space exploration argument for years. Why spend so much money, risk so many people, and expend so much effort on something as tenuous as a nearly useless foothold in LEO, when the masses have such big problems here on Earth?
The answer to that is that our foothold on our own planet is just as tenuous—which brings me to my last point. The broader takeaway message of Gravity, in my opinion, was supposed to be one of hope: Life on Earth is fragile and unsuited to survive in much of the universe, but it is precious and unique. And like the first creatures to struggle out of the sea onto dry land (to use the movie’s own crude evolutionary metaphor) we are experiencing our first gasping pains on the new shoals of outer space. We will face difficulties, and some will not survive, but what we learn from these mistakes paves the way for the future. At least I’d like to think that’s the message of the movie.
However I fear that the message will be misread by casual viewers. Gravity can easily be seen as an anti-space program screed. Viewed a certain way, it posits the certain eventuality of such a disaster as a warning, and suggests that these fragile monuments to nationalism (the space shuttles and space stations) aren’t worth the effort. Mother Earth is our beautiful home, it exclaims; that’s where we evolved, and that’s where we should stay. You ain’t never gettin’ me up in one of those deathtraps! But this is a short-term view of our species, life in general on our planet, and our place in the universe.
Our planet may seem enormous and comforting, but it is no less an object in space, enslaved by physics, than the least free-floating suited astronaut. In time it will cook in radiation and burn up on reentry into the surface of its unforgiving star. On its surface, we exist in a razor-thin layer that at any moment could be choked to death by a supervolcano or an asteroid. But not content to wait, we’re almost wantonly destroying the layer on our own. So what will we choose? To ride it out, Slim Pickens style,
on our planet to the end. Or can we agree that if we want our children to survive, we need overcome our doubts and develop space technologies that take our ecosystems into space, to other planets, and hopefully, someday to other stars?
Did Gravity excite me to do that? No, and I’m pro-space. That is why Gravity sucked. I worry that it will leave too many in fear, certain that the problems are insurmountable, and in the end, not really caring, just looking for the next ride.