Objects in Space: The “Gravity” of Hollywood’s Portrayal of Science

 /  Oct. 29, 2013, 7:30 a.m.


Popular astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson caused a bit of an uproar when he dedicated a portion of his Twitter feed on October 6 to critiquing the scientific accuracy of Alfonso Cuarón’s space epic Gravity. Tyson is far from alone in his critique. Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as astronauts on a repair mission to the Hubble telescope gone horribly wrong. The film opened to a huge box office take (making back over half of its $100 million budget in the opening weekend alone) and rave reviews, but  had a harsher reception in the scientific community. Critiques began even before the film was released, when Ars Technica published an interview with Zeb Scoville, head of NASA’s Extravehicular Activity Task Force, whose critiques were based solely on a viewing of the film’s extended trailer. Few of the errors highlighted were large enough to be serious plot holes. However, the film seems to ignore the vastly different orbital alignments of the Hubble Space Telescope and ISS, which orbit at over a hundred miles higher around different parts of the earth. The challenges of ferrying people between the two orbits - even in a space shuttle - almost led to the abandonment of the Hubble project several years ago. For the most part though, the criticism seems pedantic. Why are astrophysicists obsessed with the accuracy of a Hollywood film?

Jeffery Kluger, author of Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13, upon which the Ron Howard film Apollo 13 was based, seems to have hit the nail on the head: “When a movie purports to traffic in [science and facts] it’s only fair to point out the blunders.” Gravity does not depict actual events in the same way as Apollo 13 or The Right Stuff, but remains close enough to reality that it can be hard to distinguish fact from fiction. The film has an almost documentary-like quality, never breaking the reality of the moment to reassure the audience of its fiction. Unlike Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cuarón’s film is not set in a distant future but rather in a perpetual present or near future. No new technology is introduced, and no aliens are contacted. It all seems so plausible. Yet Kubrick’s film has been praised for exactly the kind of authenticity Gravity ostensibly depicts. NASA seems far more willing to let inaccuracies slide in predictive films.

Looking at the critiques of the film by NASA officials, it isn’t hard to discern a common theme: Safety in space is a serious concern, and officials have developed a wide range of tools to insure astronauts’ protection. In fact, NASA hosted a discussion on Gravity and the safety measures astronauts undergo to prepare for any work on the International Space Station or Hubble. While NASA may have to acknowledge the missteps that led to the events depicted in Apollo 13, the officials and former astronauts are quick to assure the viewing public that real space missions will not play out like Gravity. There is no need for space to be as hazardous as the film suggests, and with any luck the attention generated by the blockbuster will inspire a new generation to pursue a career in space. At least that is the hope of former astronaut Michael Massimino, who himself was first inspired by the film The Right Stuff.

Cuarón readily admits that the film is not 100 percent accurate. Although numerous consultants helped with the look and feel of the film, at the end of the day it is still a major motion picture. For all its accurate details, Gravity cares as much about its themes as its verisimilitude. Notably, Gravity can be seen as an extended metaphorical rebirth. This theme leads to one of the film’s most striking images, in which Bullock enters the temporary shelter of the International Space Station, removes her suit and curls weightless into the fetal position—even if she should be a little more concerned about frostbite.

Contrast Gravity’s thematic weight with a film like Europa Report, whose plot, which was built from the ground up with the help of consultants from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, revels in details such as radiation shielding and the water density beneath the ice sheet of Jupiter’s moon. By comparison, it’s clear that Gravity is not representative of “hard science fiction,” the subgenre that emphasizes scientific rigor above other aspects of narrative. While Gravity may capture as closely as possible the actual perils of space travel, its concerns are psychological, sociological, and, ultimately, metaphorical. Although striving for accuracy, the use of science in Gravity will never be confused with its use in works like Arthur C. Clarke’s “Jupiter Five,” a story that involved more than twenty pages of orbital calculations to write.

For all his noted criticism, Tyson still enjoyed the film, because Gravity gets far more right than it does wrong. It is certainly real enough that scientists have felt the need to assure everyone it’s just a movie.

The image featured in this article is license under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Jake Howry


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