In Life After the Star Wars Expanded Universe, we take a look at science fiction and fantasy, why they’re great, and what they say about where our species has been and where it’s going.
Gravity is a space film. It is also the winningest movie of the 86th Academy Awards, bringing home seven Oscars. It deserves every single one. It took me half a year to actually watch this, which is strange considering how I prioritize my media consumption mostly by putting anything that involves spaceships on the top of the pile. What I watched when I finally got around to it was a sparse, tightly-woven film about what happens when something minor goes wrong in an extremely hostile environment. Gravity is devastating in its simplicity. After a fairly brief intro period, there is only one character, and her only enemy is the title of the movie – the force of gravitation.
Gravity’s great! It keeps you from flying off the face of the Earth! Wonderful! However, if you are in orbit, your relationship to gravity becomes markedly less benevolent. Orbit amounts to controlled freefall. In orbit, you are falling at an exact velocity and an exact trajectory that maintains you or your craft in a circle around the planet. At the end of the day, you are still just falling, so if anything at all goes wrong, your orbit will turn into a more everyday type of fall, and you will catch fire and burn to death in the mesosphere. In addition to the falling problem, Earth’s gravity keeps an impressive amount of space debris in a cloud around the planet (19,000 discrete pieces over two inches). It’s fine if it’s just sitting there, but if it or you is moving fast, there is a significant collision danger. The International Space Station orbits at around 17,000 mph. Imagine getting hit in the face with a professionally-thrown baseball (90 mph). Now imagine one or many baseball-sized things hitting your orbital craft at 200 times that speed. This is basically what happens in the first fifteen minutes of Gravity.
Each white dot is something that could kill you
The initial destruction caused by space debris leaves Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) completely alone in space, desperate to find a way back home. Well, a survivable way back home. If she lowered her standards, she could get home by simply pushing off in the general direction of Earth. In addition to the general destruction of devices and networks meant to keep humans alive in low Earth orbit, communications satellites are also down, which means Stone is alone not only physically but psychologically. With absolutely no communication with Houston and the nearest human being about 200-300 miles straight down, Bullock’s character becomes the most isolated individual in human history. This isolation and Stone’s lopsided struggle with a hostile and decaying environment combine to make one of the cleanest, most perfect pieces of suspense fiction of the past few years.
With only one main character bouncing around in a terrifying situation she neither asked nor prepared for, all the the viewer’s chips are in one pot, so to speak. In Aliens, everyone around Ripley just dies and dies and dies, and that only serves to ramp up the tension for Ripley’s own survival. In Gravity, you only get one, and if you break it, that’s it. From almost the beginning of the conflict, this dynamic forces a stronger level of investment in the character and results in a higher level of terror. The total focus on one character also allows the deep exploration of that character’s psyche – she talks to herself because there is no one else to talk to, and she talks about her daughter, her life, her hopes, and her fears. Following her on her journey from space installation to space installation in her desperate quest to survive is one of the most enjoyable narrative achievements of the past year.
Probably the best-done female character in all of science fiction
Gravity is billed as a science fiction film, and an interesting question is why? There is no futuristic technology, no aliens, no psychic powers or mutation. This film uses no technology that does not exist, so why is it science fiction? SF is about more than the future, time travel, and warp drives. It is about technology, the changes engendered by it, and the relationship of humanity to it. One of the best science fiction novels out there, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, has at its core cryptography and information science. The science fictional aspects of the book focus on a well-developed technology that has existed since time. It specifically explored its use and misuse in WWII and the 1990s. As the pace of change and technological development increases, science fiction becomes more and more just normal fiction. It is not the milieu into which we project our imaginations, but the milieu in which we live. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the life the grandfather led was the life the father led was the life the son led. My grandfather started a family when color television was a pretty swell new thing, my father started a family when personal computers could process text, process numbers, and play Snake, and now I’m living in a world where this single machine on which I am typing gives me access to more information than I could process in my entire life, videophones are a reality (FaceTime and Skype), people walk around with mobile computers in their pocket more powerful than the NASA computer that sent men to the Moon, medical professionals can literally print human organs, and human beings temporarily live in space. We cannot escape from SF as the basis of many of our stories because the future arrived yesterday, and continues arriving yesterday every time the sun rises. It is simple to build an entire narrative from the basic theories and problems of space habitation as they exist now.
Pictured: the OS mission control used during the Apollo 11 flight
Cuarón built Gravity on the theory of gravitation (sure) and the problem of the Kessler syndrome. I’ve already discussed the problem of orbit as a controlled fall, but the Kessler syndrome is a very real concern of space agencies today. Basically, there’s so much crap floating around above us that one little explosion or impact could cause an ablation cascade, wherein the fallout from one event then collides with and destroys other objects, the fallout from which then collides with and destroys more objects, on and on until everything upstairs is well and truly fucked. NASA’s main concern with this possibility is that it could take out many of our satellites and render space unusable for generations, but in Gravity, this ablation cascade directly threatens the main character’s life. Bonus: due to gravity, she gets to deal with 17000 mph debris circling around the Earth and returning for another hit every 90 minutes! The danger, isolation, and unknowability of space come to the fore in this film. Terror in the face of the unknown or in the face of forces much larger than we could control or comprehend is a main theme of SF. Gravity shows us that we do not need to go to Alpha Centauri to find those forces – one of them exists right here, keeping our feet firmly glued to the ground.
Andrew Findlay has strong opinions about things (mostly literature) and will share them with you loudly and confidently. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.