Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Gravity: Spin Spin Sugar

Off to the cinema, to see Gravity, a new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, who play a pair of astronauts trapped in orbit. On one level it's a space adventure in the mould of Project Moonbase or Riders to the Stars crossed with the realism of Apollo 13 and the physics engine of Garry's Mod; on a deeper level it's a surprisingly ambiguous feminist parable of a spinster who brings meaning to her bleak life by learning to achieve sexual fulfilment with a fire extinguisher.

As a sci-fi adventure Gravity is a throwback, essentially a technically state-of-the-art update of a typical trapped-in-orbit sci-fi short from the pages of Astounding Science Fiction and its contemporaries. Off the top of my head it reminded me of Isaac Asimov's Marooned Off Vesta (1939), Tom Godwin's The Cold Equations (1954), Arthur C Clarke's Maelstrom II (1962), etc - but this is easily forgiven when you consider just how rare proper science fiction is in mainstream Hollywood. With the exception of 2001 and its sequel 2010, perhaps Moon, there have been very few good contemporary science fiction films that used near-contemporary space exploration as more than just a backdrop for a soap opera or action film. I say good in order to rule out Mission to Mars, which aspired to the seriousness of Gravity but failed dismally, utterly, totally.

There were a few attempts to make serious space science fiction at the very dawn of the space age, most famously George Pal's Destination Moon (1950), but it seems that once real-life spaceflight was routinely featured on television it was no longer an adventure. Gravity is released at a time when the space industry has become an indispensable part of everyday life, with telecommunications and GPS relying on satellites in orbit, and NASA has kept itself in the public eye with a series of impressive robotic missions to Mars, but human space exploration - long considered the real thing, with everything else an unglamorous side-show - seems to have had its day. There's Mars, of course, but short of a series of economic miracles Mars will be decades hence, assuming we ever go.

The Frame Store is a special effects house based in London - I've walked past it, and this is what it looked like back when Gravity was new.

And if we go, will we stay? Gravity doesn't really concern itself with NASA's long-term manned space strategy, it's essentially a claustrophobic thriller with a degree in Newtonian physics. There's a certain amount of character development, but it's on the level of a soap opera, and feels like almost bolted-on, for the most part compartmentalised into one scene. Nonetheless the film has a powerful subtext. At the outset Sandra Bullock plays an unmarried woman whose only child died several years before, and there's an implication that she is frigid and men spurn her. The only other male characters in the film who make an impression are George Clooney, who is essentially a father figure, and a second astronaut whose name I didn't catch. He has a juvenile temperament and is quickly killed off. The other characters are either corpses for most of the film, or voices on the radio (with Ed Harris very briefly as mission control).

The rest of the film is essentially a voyage of awakening in which Sandra Bullock's character learns to abandon her erotic fixation on her father and transfer this to a fire extinguisher, thus accepting an independent life without men, as a spinster. Bullock's sexual awakening is portrayed in a sequence where she straddles and attempts to control the aforementioned firefighting implement as it propels her erratically through space. In terms of plot it's a clever way for Bullock's character to transfer from a Soyuz capsule to a Chinese space station, but as always with works of art the plot can be read on several levels. On a deeper level the events of Gravity are a thematic framework for one woman's psychosexual awakening, and the space hardware is essentially a series of metaphors.

Very attractive metaphors, too. Even when everything is being blasted to smithereens, the film has a stately beauty that will look fantastic on 4K televisions. The 3D works exceptionally well, at times emphasising the characters' isolation in the vastness of space, at other times making us feel the claustrophobia of a pressurised environment. The film has a lot of padding - the third act is essentially a repeat of the second act, shots are extended beyond all reason, even allowing for the rhythms of orbit - but it never quite crosses the line into tedium. And at least the padding advances the plot, if only incrementally. It would have been tempting to have flashbacks to the characters' lives on Earth, or cuts to mission control, or a comedy sequence with a comedy cosmonaut on the ISS, but director Alfonso CuarĂ³n keeps the camera on our heroes at all times. In fact, with the exception of a few point-of-view shots and space exteriors Sandra Bullock is on-screen for the entire film. Whole minutes consist of tight close-ups of her face, and if you study her eyes you can see the audience of the 86th Academy Awards reflected in them.

Bullock is the main event. Clooney delivers a typically laid-back, commanding performance as a laid-back mission commander, but doesn't really bring anything more than his natural charm. He never seems to be stretching himself, although it's not really his fault, because the script gives him very little to work with. He's essentially a caricature of an Apollo-era astronaut, complete with a twangy country and western soundtrack. Apparently Clooney and Bullock were late choices for the film; originally it would have starred Robert Downey Jr and Angelina Jolie, which would probably have coloured the central metaphor with incestuous undertones. Bullock herself is spunky and affecting, and has enormous reserves of natural charm. Which is fortunate because her character is called upon to continually panic and (literally) hyperventilate. Some actresses would have been infuriatingly unsympathetic in the role but Bullock's natural charisma is such that I wanted her to pull through rather than wanting to tell her to get on with it. The cold lighting and tight, wide-angle close-ups - accentuated by a NASA skullcap that obscures her hair - give her face an alien quality.

The film uses bold, sometimes crude symbolism to illustrate Bullock's plight. After narrowly escaping death she retreats to the womb of the International Space Station, and assumes a foetal position as if to hammer the metaphor home. At the climax of the film, when she has finally learned to be an independent woman, she's photographed from below, as it she was a colossus striding a primeval Earth. As if she was Woman. It would be tempting to draw parallels with the story of Adam and Eve, but Gravity is smarter than that. There's absolutely no hint of sexual tension between Clooney and Bullock, who instead have a father-daughter relationship - Clooney occasionally has a tendency to address his female co-stars as if they were children, and it surfaces here. In real life Bullock and Clooney are almost the same age, and I have to say that Sandra Bullock has worn well. In their constraining space suits, tethered together with straps and harnesses, their relationship could easily have been played as dom/sub in space, but again the film avoids this.

I learn from the internet that most of the spacesuit sequences are actually CGI, with only the actors' faces being live action. Instead of hanging from wires or drifting in a floatation tank, or getting to ride NASA's vomit comet, the stars spent most of their schedule sitting in a box with a camera filming their face, which must have been disappointing. As with all CGI-heavy films I'm struck by the realisation that somewhere there's a detailed 3D model of George Clooney's body, wearing a spacesuit, presumably encrypted and held in a vault in case he ever appears in the sequel. Gravity has been a huge and unexpected financial success. The studio sat on the idea for years but must have realised that they were on to a winner, because it has been heavily promoted. A sequel seems unlikely, and George Clooney's character (spoiler) dies, but money is powerfully alluring. I can imagine a direct-to-video Gravity II in which Bullock's replacement realises that she has landed on Earth in the future! or there are pirates, or something.

Eventually the womb of the ISS is rendered uninhabitable by fire, one of the very few moments that echoes Armageddon, and I have to assume that the writers tried very hard not to remind the audience of that film. The obliteration of the station by high-speed debris is the film's visual highlight, an astonishing metal ballet that must have sorely taxed the CGI team's physics engine. In a daring touch the destruction takes places in the background, in near-silence, while our attention is focused on a character wrestling with some cables in the foreground, and almost imperceptibly the screen seems to fill with twirling debris. On a sonic level the film aims for veracity. Vacuum is shown to be silent, and sounds are only transmitted to the characters when they're in physical contact with a conducting object. The musical soundtrack is very spartan and basically redundant, and I wonder if the director originally planned to have no soundtrack at all, but was overruled by the producers.

The ISS sequence illustrates one of the film's narrative flaws, which is that the plotting is extremely mechanistic. With the exception of a scene in which Sandra Bullock barks like a dog and then tries to kill herself - the Oscar scene - the film's plot is essentially a very tight flowchart. Bullock arrives; hell breaks loose; she escapes; repeat. It has the effect of making Bullock's character seem like an avatar of destruction who brings chaos wherever so goes. When the Chinese space station realises that she's on her way, it decides to give up and commit suicide rather than fight the inevitable. But whereas Bullock's character overcomes her own urge to end it all - with the help of George Clooney's ghost, who pops in for a chat, in a sequence that could easily have been unintentionally funny but works surprisingly well - the Chinese... the Chinese...

I'm sorry, I've forgotten how this sentence began. (re-reads) urge to end it all, the poor Chinese station has no such reprieve. I actually felt sorry for it. Unlike the ISS, it seemed to be in fairly good condition, and it did no-one any harm, at least not while it was in orbit. The burning atmospheric wreckage of the station serves a crucial narrative role as a final metaphorical send-off for Clooney's character, and also for Bullock's formerly up-tight sexuality. As the film ends she strides off over a swampy, primeval, quite blatantly sexual landscape, no doubt off to teach other women how to cherish themselves.

The film should really have been called Momentum, after the tendency of a body to keep moving in the absence of a countervailing force. Bullock's character constantly finds herself struggling with momentum, and in a wider sense her life has built up a momentum that takes a lethal cataclysm to overcome. Although gravity eventually brings her down to Earth, most of her problems stem from an inability to stop or change direction. I hesitate to give it a star rating; if it was a David Bowie album it would be Scary Monsters and Super Creeps. Ten out of six.

Part of a late-70s space station concept - the "Austere Modular Space Station (AMSS)" from Rockwell

Boxout: Science
The film has been simultaneously praised and damned for its science. It reminds me of Space: 1999, in the sense that it aspires to accuracy but opts for dramatic licence whenever science and plot diverge. Whereas Space: 1999 was written by a bunch of cop show and soap opera hacks pressed into service as sci-fi writers - I imagine Gerry Anderson threw them a bundle of Eagle comics and some tickets to see Planet of the Apes and 2001 and asked them to come up with stories that had at least one spaceship crash and an explosion - Gravity has enough veracity to suggest that the writers were aware of the film's inaccuracies, and decided not to care about them for our entertainment.

For example, Bullock's character reaches the Chinese space station by pointing her Soyuz capsule directly at it and firing off the thrusters. In reality, the physics of orbit would have sent her into a higher and thus slower orbit; she would have needed to fire the thrusters away from the Chinese station to lower her orbit, and then she would need to ascend to the same orbit as the station once she had caught up. This is counter-intuitive and would have been difficult to explain in the film's limited screen time, and for what? If we accept that the film exists on the level of metaphor rather than literal reality, we can accept that the orbital manoeuvres are essentially placeholders, the equivalent of Star Trek's "insert technical solution here" script notes.

On a more obvious level, the film shows the shuttle, the ISS, and the Chinese station all sharing the same orbit - and at the beginning of the film the Shuttle is working in the Hubble space telescope. In reality the Hubble orbits much higher than the ISS, and it would have been impossible for George Clooney's backpack to transfer him to the lower orbit. The debris field that causes all the trouble could theoretically be at the same altitude as the Hubble, although in reality space debris tends to be tiny and too fast to see, whereas in the film there are visible chunks. The debris field itself is a hypothetical possibility - the "Kessler Cascade" - although it would take longer than a few seconds to coalesce.

Shuttle missions were numbered, from STS-1 (the first) to STS-135, the 135th and final mission, although the numbers in between were often jiggled about. In the pre-Challenger period NASA used a numbering system based on the fiscal year, and all but the first few missions were numbered in schedule order, which meant that delays could throw the sequence out. The film shows STS-157, which would have launched five or six years from now, so we have to assume that it's set in an alternative future that was kinder to manned space exploration (the existence of a large-scale Chinese station suggests this). The film doesn't touch on the ramifications of the disaster, although it would surely cause a financial cataclysm and would knock sat-nav stone dead, assuming the field affected the GPS / GLONASS / whatever-the-ESA-would-have-constellation. This is a boxout and so it ends abruptly. Look, I didn't sit in the cinema pointing out the science mistakes; I was caught up in the film. It's like making love, you know? Only afterwards do you point out the mistakes, and post them on the internet so that other people know about it.