"Gravity" (film)

A heckle.

Hanging on to the outskirts of popular culture has left many Very Famous Movies unseen by this one. Despite having come out short of two years prior, only recently did I find an opportunity to watch "Gravity", the visual spectacle from late '13. Unlike many, and for various reasons, I watched this film on a laptop screen, not in gigavision immersive cinema.
However, this rant is not a critique of the visual aspects of "Gravity", as they were indeed spectacular and well-crafted. From photorealistic CGI space-hardware to physically unrealistic but still pretty tears floating through the air, this film brings out the big guns of post-processing and fires barrage upon barrage for ninety successive minutes. If you enjoy looking at space, this videorama has got you covered with what is probably the most thought out representation of how things really do look up there.
But I don't watch movies just for the visuals. I watch them for the experience, from emotionally gripping narrative to brilliant dialogue and back again through double-over hilarity. There is no end of examples from times past of films with eye-watering drama and suspense that gives you flop sweat that DON'T have "Gravity"'s budget or graphical resources.
Sadly, this movie does not deliver on the account of storytelling and clever usage of resources to make the plot shine. Rather, it appears its creators have dropped all their resources into making it a visual singularity (drafting Bullock and Cloony instead of believable actors), leaving the technical, realistic and exciting storytelling to suffer as a result.

The full plot of the movie is rather simple. The short version is: noob goes to space. Russians fuck up. Noob fucks up. Everyone except noob dies horribly trying to save noob or themselves. Everything blows up. Noob survives by crying a little and hallucinating in oxygen deprevated state. Noob goes home and is unscathed. Really. That's literally it.

The long version is more flimsy, but nevertheless somewhat simple.
"Ryan Stone", a medical engineer and developer of some scanning implement for use in laboratories, gets a rush job astronaut crash course (six months of training as opposed to 12-24 months which is normal for standard ISS-and-back missions) to join experienced astronauts on a risky shuttle mission to repair and enhance the Hubble telescope by installing her scanning module (which is not explained at all, save "this will let us see to the edge of space/reality/the universe").

The astronuts are faffing around, Clooney is rocketing around in his supercharged jetpack ("Ive been flying around for five hours and still have only used 30% of the fuel"), Token Asian Dude is playing bungee with his tether and Bullock is trying to find ctrl+alt+del on the Hubble. All is well.
Ryan, whose job does not involve her personal expertise and who could be ten times more useful sitting in her yoga pants in Houston telling the real astronauts what button to press when, shows a distinct lack of "the right stuff" that all major space agencies look for in prospective astronauts. She disobeys a direct order to GTFO when the very real shit hits the very real fan. This fanshitting is due to "the Russians" being stupid and not knowing what space debris is or does or causes.
Satellites whose orbits are not where the film says they are (not talking a couple kilometers off. They're mostly 20.000 km further up), defragment in a chain reaction known as "Kessler syndrome" (which is a real thing, for that matter). This is the "Great White Shark" or "Terminator army" or "Death star" of this movie. The big villain is space trash, a huge risk for real spaceflight, but this is where realism ends.
Upon receiving word from Houston that a satellite decommissioning has gone horribly wrong, commanding all astronauts to evacuate and deorbit, "every communications satellite" suddenly becomes deadly debris hurtling towards the protagonists, who are busy not knowing how to troubleshoot faulty components on Hubble while parked and docked in their fancy new space shuttle right under it. flying shrapnel starts pummeling the shuttle, the telescope and the astronauts, and Ryan Stone suddenly forgets how to do several things that all astronauts have to know. Among them the list includes: obeying direct crisis-situation orders by a more experienced astronaut, untethering in a stressful situation and getting to safety.

In the middle of this, since "all communications satellites" are now defunct death-shrapnel, "everyone on Earth just lost their {major cable network} and {major social network}". (Oh, and by the way, we can't contact Mission Control)

The robotic arm/crane Bullock is hooked to while last minute "servicing" the Hubble ("just one more minute" not getting it to work) becomes blasted away from the shuttle, and she's suddenly on the business end of a space bolos, flying/spinning into eternity. Eventually, she manages to untether from the arm, panics and expends half her oxygen forgetting every last second of those six months of training. After a few minutes at unknown velocity, she manages to flash her light to "Matt Kowalski" Clooney, who is handily both the more experienced astronaut, and riding a "jetpack", which for that matter does look a lot like the real thing.
He finds her and tethers onto her, while Bullock now inconveniently is down to arond 10% capacity on her oxygen tank. They play space trailers before finding and picking up Floating Token Asian Dude (regrettably the first to die, which is shown by his head having a giant rectangular hole right through it), before trucking to the ex-shuttle which, it turns out, is now full of holes and dead astronauts. Bullock is hyperventilating throughout all this. After some more mucking about, Clooney locates the ISS (IRL not in the same orbit by far) and starts pumping toward it, Bullock in tow. Emotional exposition ensues while they go.
After a few minutes of jetting to Bullock, followed by returning to the shuttle and trucking to ISS, Clooney's previously supercharged "five hours is just 30% fuel" jetpack reaches bingo fuel. The astronauts try poorly to grab and hang on to the ISS, and Bullock ends up disconnecting from Clooney before being tangled in parachute wires and grabbing his tether just before he floats away. Of course, she's not attached "enough" to the paracord, and Clooney orders her to let him go so he can die in peace. Instead of giving him a light tug (which would send him to safety) she obeys her first and only order for the movie and kills the only remaining experienced astronaut. She's also all out of O2 by now, still not breathing calmly despite not having any source of refill.
After killing Clooney, Bullock enters the ISS last minute and repressurizes the air lock just in time not to suffocate. She then floats through ISS for a few moments, ignoring the fire that is blooming in a service panel until a blaring siren reminds her. Then she again forgets all her training and knocks herself unconscious trying to fire an extinguisher at the flames while floating freely. The fire spreads during her time under and she manages to get to the not-fit-for-reentry Soyuz capsule and tries to undock in order to head for the Chinese space station (Tiangong), where Clooney told her there would be a more suited reentry pod. This being space, all equipment has multilingual manuals in tactical places.
Of course, this doesn't go as planned. The Soyuz is tangled up in umbilicals and paracord (umbilicals not mentioned in the manual, apparently), so she spacewalks again, almost gets hit by another barrage of debris and breaks half the capsule freeing it. Then she tries to power toward the Tiangong, and despite being able to stabilize the pod to a standstill with its RCS-thrusters, a quick "tap on the fuel gage"-trope reveals she too, is all out of fuel. Then she decides to turn on the radio to contact someone and mayday for help, and receives a signal from a Mongolian nomad with a shortwave radio or something.
This comforts her, and she is convinced she will die, so instead of staying awake as long as possible in the off chance she can recontact Houston or manage to find SOME workaround (taking inventory, refueling from a suit, trying all different combinations of morse or frequency to contact JAXA, Houston, RUSKOSMOS, ESA, NASA, ISA or any of the others) she bleeds out the pod's supply of air and passes out (again).
During her unconsciousness, she hallucinates that Clooney knocks on the pod door and gets in, tells her to try the landing boosters (an uncontrolled burst of set impulse) and promptly vanishes, after which she wakes up, thanks him, refills the pod with air and reads another freaking manual as if it was the first time she heard you could do that if you were unsure of what to do in space.
This works swimmingly, but as she approaches the Tiangong, it turns out to be deorbiting (apparently, not just broken, but way WAY out of orbit). So she suits up, brings her fire extinguisher, and for the first time in the movie shows a bafflingly precise understanding of how to maneuver in EVA using only jets of CO2. (WALL-E-style). Of course, she manages to hang onto a decompressing air lock door (boom) and gets into the station, making her way to the Chinese Soyuz-lookalike to return home. Everything in THIS pod is in monolingual Chinese, and she has to guess what buttons to press (despite the button layout being the same of the Soyuz). The pod eventually decouples as the entire station is hit by brick atmosphere, and through a horrifyingly realistic visual spectacle of disintegrating debris on reentry (Challenger accident comes to mind), the pod deploys its chutes properly and lands in a lake.
Being hit by shrapnel itself, a fire has broken out in the pod, and instead of extinguishing it and answering Houston (who, finally, have made contact by radio), she opens the hatch of the floating pod, drowns herself to within an inch of her life and crawls onto the beach alone.

    The end.


The plot is cringeworthy through and through, nobody except the extras gets hurt from any of the banging into things, Bullock's role is entirely unfit for space and survival is only ensured through first giving up, attempting suicide and hallucinating your way to reassured strength.
The film shows one of the absolute worst possible scenarios astronauts may face, but neither takes this seriously, nor relies on any form of the routine-and-rehearse which signifies actual missions.
If a similar Hubble Upgrade mission were to be attempted, as it has many times previous, all involved astronauts would practice all involved equipment to familiarize them with practically ALL functions of said equipment. Don't get it? You don't go to space. The reason for such long training times before any space mission isn't just fitness and exercise, the biggest challenge is ensuring every single 'naut has muscle memory and training enough to survive.
Granted, a very real problem of space missions is "space sickness", in which you become disoriented and confused until you remember that you've done everything a thousand times before, and your training kicks in. However, a large part of this training is combating panic and handling disaster scenarios. Every single possible aspect of a mission is attempted recreated either in pools (to mimic microgravity) or in simulators. It's famously impossible to prepare for every single possible aspect. Shit happens. The difference between an employee and an astronaut is that the astronaut is given enough disaster training to at least PROBABLY be able to stay calm. It's simply the only way to survive up there.

In closing
I recommend watching it for the visuals. I know a lot of prominent spacemen/spacewomen have lauded the film as looking real and being great, but I simply can't get behind a positive review of it as a complete work. The sheer incompetence of Bullock's role makes me angry, and I believe a lot of people really think a person acting in the way she does would be allowed a seat on a shuttle. That's what scares me.
Astronauts are the most professional professionals in history. They can joke around and be silly, but you'll be out of luck if you try to find a human being with more control of their own psyche, more experience before being in a real situation or less likely to fuck up as monumentally as Bullock's role does. It doesnt help that she's overly emotional throughout the film, until the very last second.
One of five stars.