Monday, October 21, 2013


The universe appreciates gravity.

Humans, less so.

I wanted to love GRAVITY.  And there were moments and long minutes when the special effects and the human effects left me smitten.  There is elegance and such magnificent beauty involving Sandra Bullock in her spacesuit, doing the dreary plug-in and boot-up and hope for success work from the hardware.  This is the dullest lab work, plus a view worth billions.  And later, when Sandra is stripped of the suit, floating exhausted in zero-gee...that moment struck me as perfect.  I didn't want it to end.  But for a movie based on silence, there was a terrible amount of motion serving the modern role of roaring, senseless noise.  Some of the scientific snafus were obvious to me.  Some I learned about later.  And then there's the matter of big objects moving together in low-orbit flight.  That doesn't constitute a scientific mistake, perhaps.  No, the mistake was inserting contrivances in an effort to build some story that people will "Relate to."

(People don't need much excuse to relate to a character.  There's a great little moment in the television series COMMUNITY when the curmudgeon/lawyer Jeff shows everybody a pencil.   Then he names the pencil. Let's say he names the pencil Larry, and then he callously breaks Larry in two, and everybody at the table grieves.  And hell, I was sitting at home, feeling horrible sorry for poor Larry.)

My point is that playing with science and orbits might be necessary, sure.  But what I take from this isn't wagging my finger at mistakes, no. It's the lost chance to use what is real and building a better, more dramatic story.

To my knowledge, space debris doesn't fly past at sports car speeds.  GRAVITY depends on the colliding orbits, and it is possible to end up with relatively slow collisions.  But that is unlikely.  Sandra Bullock is moving 17,000 miles an hour, which is far faster than a bullet shot by a bullet that is shot by a bullet.  The same speeds are being achieved by every mindless shard of metal and plastic.  They plunge at her from some other piece of the sky.  Seeing their arrival is unlikely.  Maybe a flash of reflected sunlight now and again, but no tumbling object is visible.  Certainly nothing possessing shape and color.  Nothing will happen, and then the wrench in Sandra's hand will be gone from her hand.  No sound.  No sense of oncoming menace.  And that same magnificent, capricious violence will happen to an astronaut's face, and the shuttle will be pierced and pierced again, as if by a furious, invisible demon.  Space debris is a demon, amoral and relentless.  How could that be anyway but dramatic?

The ninety minute clock is contrived.  I don't think the two orbits would marry up like the gears in a perfectly aligned clock.  Directors and other souls trained in movie classes like the ticking clock, but this device isn't used that effectively in the movie, if only because nobody bothers to look at the time every few minutes, which is what I would damn well do.

A better ploy might be to embrace the demon.  The worst possible collision spreads chaos across the sky.  This is not impossible. If space is full of debris, and if collisions continue to make new terrors, then you don't know when the next assault begins, or how long it will last, or if any pause is a genuine peace or just the demon having fun with with your terror.

Space is the ultimate suburbia.  Space stations and telescopes aren't stacked up in the sky like they are in GRAVITY.  There are many fine reasons for this, including differing launch requirements and the lack of good reasons to travel in flocks.  But there might be worthy reasons someday, which is why I vote for a modestly futuristic story.  Of course movie people like the feeling of "modern" tales.  They think that audiences relate to the present day more easily.  Which is why we see an extinct space shuttle--good old 1970s technology bringing back reliable emotions.

I recently wrote a screenplay based on one of my works.  Like the source material, the script has to have an impossible, futuristic machine ripping holes in our universe.  And for good story reasons, I thought the machine should speak with a woman's voice.  But I was told that no, the director wanted to keep the story rooted in the present.  So I asked, "What kind of phone do you use?"  An I-phone, he said.  Which implies that he talks to Siri more often than almost anyone else in his life.  And that brings up one fine rule of movie making:  Setting your movie in the present day really means a mixture of times, and when it comes to attitudes, the story will often reflect bygone eras.

In a rewrite, I would be sorely tempted to set the movie in some sprawling city in space--factories and whatnot scattered across a few hundred miles--and the whole ugly catastrophe would start with some small blunder.

What catastrophe doesn't start small?

And gravity is mysterious.

This has nothing to do with the movie, not directly.  But I think it bears repeating, and I mean every day and maybe every waking hour.  Humans don't have a clue what gravity really is.  Yes, it seems to be everywhere, but as one of the four known forces, it is miserably weak.  The bulk of its energy might be slipping into other dimensions, which is spooky fun.  It doesn't play with the other natural laws in neat ways, which the other three do.   And just because our world and our bodies hug each other, nobody can say for certain that gravity works across eternity and over tiny gaps.

But here's another measure of our ignorance.  No computer, real or imagined, has sufficient power to perfectly model every gravity-mediated motion in a universe.  And even calculating the orbits of just three bodies involves a lot of approximations and subtle sleight-of-hands.

Which is movie making, by all means.  Approximations and sleight-of-hands.

By the way, I loved the last scene of GRAVITY, too.