Lost in Space With ‘Gravity’

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Gravity, director Alfonso Cuarón’s new trapped-in-outer-space movie starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, manages to be both a classic Hollywood movie-star picture and a showcase for the some of the most cutting-edge technical effects ever.

Those effects are almost reason enough by themselves to see Gravity. Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki spent years developing the techniques that allow them to communicate the experience of outer-space weightlessness. Much like Avatar, this is a 3D movie that truly takes advantage of the format. The IMAX presentation, combined with downright spooky audio effects made possible by the new Dolby Atmos format, creates an experience that you’ll never have at home, no matter how expensive your TV screen or sound system might be.

Sandra Bullock plays scientist-turned-astronaut Ryan Stone. Anyone who watches a lot of Turner Classic Movies will recognize her part as the kind of strong-woman-overcomes-powerful-odds role that Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck or Joan Crawford used to play. George Clooney as astronaut Matt Kowalski offers the kind of wry counterpoint that Van Johnson, Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper acted so well. Aside from Ed Harris’ voice on the radio and a brief appearance by a third astronaut early in the movie, Bullock and Clooney have to carry the movie all by themselves.

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Gravity is also movie designed to remind everyone about the excitement and drama of space travel at a time when NASA is facing year after year of spending cuts. The space program of the ’60-‘80s represented a kind of national R&D program, one that fueled the technological innovations that are the basis of the modern information economy. NASA is getting more aggressive about its own PR and they’ve decided to get behind this movie.

The setup is simple: space debris destroys the shuttle while the crew is repairing the Hubble telescope and the survivors have to find their way home. Exactly how they try to get there has enough basis in real science to seem plausible and Cuarón packs all the action a relentless 91 minutes. In an era where even the flimsiest popcorn movies seem to clock it at well over two hours and everyone’s Netflix-bingeing on 50-episode TV series, a film that doesn’t waste any time making its point is a welcome and bracing change.

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Cuarón began his career in Mexico and first gained attention here for his 2001 Oscar-nominated film Y Tu Mamá También. He then proved his commercial chops by directing the best Harry Potter movie (Prisoner of Azkban) and then immediately left the series to direct  Children of Men, the criminally underrated 2006 sci-fi road movie starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore.  Gravity is his first film since then.

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NASA astronauts Michael J. Massimino and Catherine “Cady” Coleman hosted a screening in Los Angeles and later held a press conference where they talked about their reaction to the film. Cuarón and Sandra Bullock also answered questions alongside screenwriter Jonas Cuarón and producer David Heyman.

Coleman is an Air Force vet and a chemist who went on two Space Shuttle missions and spent six months on the International Space Station. She got involved in the movie when her brother met Sandra Bullock’s brother-in-a-law and the two men got to talking and traded numbers and then Sandra called Cady when she was on the International Space Station to get some astronaut perspective.

Massimino also flew twice on the shuttle on missions to the Hubble Space Telescope. He appeared in the IMAX: Hubble 3D movie that was a big reference point for the filmmakers and has gained nerd celebrity through his guest appearances on The Big Bang Theory.

Here’s what they all had to say about the technical challenges behind the movie and how what you see on the screen relates to the real thing.

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Alfonso Cuarón on how the movie compares to real-life space travel:

The main idea that we had since the beginning was to do this stripped-down narrative where there would be a nonstop pace and in that pace we would manage to engage the audience on that emotional, thematic level.  The idea behind it is that when you engage the audience in such of kind of an instinctive almost like adrenaline-fueled journey, you’re connecting more directly with them.  It kind of becomes kind of like a cathartic, therapeutic experience where the audience can project their own experiences into that journey and adversities that Sandra’s character Ryan is going through.

This film is not a documentary because in real life they have hundreds of alternative procedures for each thing that happens.  You think about it, in 40 years of space exploration, there’s been a handful of incidents.  It’s been very limited and there are missions all of the time and you’re going to the most hostile place that any human has been ever.  And it’s because these people are so well trained and also so well trained they have – it’s not – they are not trained just to do what they are supposed to do.  They have to have alternative thinking of many other procedures.  These people are really remarkable and that’s something that I admire in the space program, you know, is a bunch of people, that they’re so qualified that then you just feel stupid.  You feel like a movie director.

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Sandra Bullock talks about the input she got from Cady Coleman:

We had one phone conversation.  You know, apparently they’re not allowed just to accept calls whenever you feel like calling the ISS.  And our work schedule was so crazy, so our connection was always sort of ships passing in the night.  My character wasn’t an astronaut.  My character wasn’t someone who wanted and aspired to be an astronaut.  All those questions were for George.  I mean that’s the research that he had to do.  My character was just someone who happened to be in a position where it was easier to train her to just execute this one mission and then go home.  But I think what I did learn from them, which was so beautiful, which again applies to George, is just their emotional point of view on life and why they go up there, why they specialize on something on Earth and why they want to go to space to see how it operates in space.

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Cady Coleman talks about the end of the Space Shuttle program and the privatization of space travel:

It would be nicer if we were launching from the US, but we have a lot of competing economic concerns in this country and a dozen years ago every single person that works at NASA could tell you that on this day we would have no space shuttle and no way to launch from American soil.  I mean it’s a choice we all made to not fund the new program to the extent that it would be ready now.

Now, I mean you can’t go back and rethink that, but things are actually in a pretty exciting state, in that as much as I loved the space shuttle and as much as it did for us (building a space station, bringing a number of different kinds of people up to space), it took enormous amounts of resources, people, and money every single time we left the planet.

It was really time to retire the shuttle.  And right now we’re in this period where it would be nice if we had the new vehicle, but the new vehicle is coming.  The test flights for the new vehicle start in 2014.  That is soon.  So it’s really soon, and when we look back at this with a longer lens, so to speak, it’ll just – it’ll be a bump, you know, it’ll be a challenging time in terms of people not working immediately right now in a vehicle.

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So we know how to get people and stuff up to space and that’s what we are having our commercial partners do.  This is companies like SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, Sierra Nevada, Boeing.  They – it’s not that you can do that easily.  It’s not that it’s – we can do it casually, but it is a known thing that these companies can do it faster.  Faster, better, cheaper is not always the most popular phrase, but it’s just true.  They’re very flexible in their decision-making.

So it is a tough time and at the same time having had this view of the planet, where you look back and you see the whole thing, it’s actually a little harder for me to think of myself as being from just one place.  I didn’t care where I launched from.  I just wanted to go and I wanted to go and live there.  And I trust the Russians and I launched with them, I landed with them and it’s an International Space Station, 16 different countries, all of these countries have different ways of doing things, but it’s working.

I mean not only is the crew working together up there, usually six people right now.  Three, because the next three will launch is about a week.  We’re in the midst of changing crews, but on the ground this phenomenal thing, 16 countries are deciding what those six people do every single day.  They’re making time-effective decisions and it’s a really extraordinary kind of thing.  And what I love about Gravity is that whether they were having a bad day up there or not, at least folks down here understand that people on this planet are exploring.  It has risks, but we’re exploring because we just have to and it’s very special.

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Massimino knows it was time for the shuttle to go but still wants to sing its praises:

It was a bit dangerous.  It was a bit expensive.  It’s time to move on, but it was a magnificent ship.  It launched like a rocket.  It took seven people with her.  Lots of cargo could go with her when the shuttle flew.  It kept us safe in orbit.  It went from a launch vehicle to kind of like a small space station.  It allowed us to build the International Space Station, launch and repair the Hubble Space Telescope, which were the missions I were on.

I remember thinking about this on one of the last flights of Atlantis.  On my last flight, I thought of everything that this spaceship had done for us, and if I was outside and I could, I would have given her a kiss.  As I was looking out on the front window, I was looking at Atlantis written on the side and what a magnificent machine.  But, you know, that time is done.  You’ve got one from here to Los Angeles that you can see in a museum and there are other places scattered around the country.  But it was really a great spaceship, I think.

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Massimino talks about whether the debris shower scenario in the movie is realistic:

As far as the real world risk, on my flights on Hubble, we were concerned about the risk of getting hit.  In fact, I remember my first flight, which was the flight before we lost Columbia.  And I remember I was a rookie on that flight and I was with a lot of experienced guys. These guys had flown multiple times and had done lots of spacewalks.  And I remember our first meeting the four space walkers got together and our lead spacewalker said to us, you know, we’ve lost a crew on launch.  I think the next time we’re going to lose somebody is during a spacewalk and we’ve all got to stick together and make sure it doesn’t happen to one of us.  And so we did whatever we could to make sure that when we button someone up inside their spacesuit, that they were ready to go and everyone was comfy and we knew the checklist and we knew every emergency and we practiced and practiced and practiced.

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One of those things that we’re concerned about was getting a debris hit.  Now, we see a very sensationalized version of a debris hit in the movie. But you know there was a reasonable but not a very large chance.

When we looked at the Hubble telescope when we were spacewalking on it, we saw some damage.  The high gain antenna, which is a big antenna dish, has a hole about about the size of a silver dollar from a micrometeorite that came in, was coming toward Earth and clipped it on the way in.  And it’s peppered with these dings.

We took out the right field camera, which has an exposed radiator.  And when I saw it on the ground at the Jet Propulsion Lab,  just down the street here in Pasadena, a few months later I saw all these little – it looked like some kid with a BB gun got at it.  Like, did you bring it to the wrong neighborhood?  What happened?  But it was from space.  It was this debris that had pinged it.  So it was something that we thought about and practiced.

If you had an incapacitated crew member for whatever reason, a debris hit or something else, you know we practiced the rescue of one crewmen, crew person, rescuing the other crew person, and what the group inside would do, what the ground would do.  And you know Cady has gone through that same training.  It’s something we have to be able to do and demonstrate before they even let you go to space.  So it is something that’s on your mind.  It’s a real risk.  The movie shows that space could be a very dangerous place.  It takes that to the extreme, but these are real risks.  These are the things we think about.  Maybe not to that extent, because the movie shows a really colossally bad day.

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Massimino talks about whether it’s possible to really prepare for a spacewalk:

But the Super Bowl without ever playing on the field, right?  Never practicing on the field.  Usually a football team gets to practice on a field.  Well, we can’t go practice in space.  You go up there and it’s the big day, right?  So we practice in lots of different facilities and we practice most of our movement is in the pool.  We have this gigantic pool at the Johnson Space Center.  It’s 200 feet long.  It’s 100 feet wide.  It’s 40 feet deep.  It’s like a lake.  It’s gigantic.  You can fit a space station and the shuttle and the Hubble inside of this thing and we could practice our space walks.

So when you’re in the water you practice moving around.  What you’ve got to be careful of in the water, people think, you know, physics-wise, is you’ve got water to kind of dampen your motion, right?  So as you move along, you’re fighting the weight of the suit and also the water dampens out your motion.  You get out – if you try to move the same way in space, you’re gonna go for a ride because your little motion is gonna take you a long way.  So you have to kind of relearn that.

When you’re a first time spacewalker, you get 15 minutes of what we call translation adaptation.  And we try to do a lot of practice inside the spaceship, you know, kind of readjusting to what it’s like to move, but when you get out there you have to go very, very carefully.  One little push you could launch yourself.

And you have a safety tether, but you don’t want to rely on that.  You want to move very, very cautiously and you can move very, very easily in space when you do it that way.  The safety tether is there to save you and I felt if I were to make a mistake and do these tumblesaults and flip, I was pretty confident that the safety tether would bring me back in, but I wasn’t as confident in my heart.

I’m not sure what’s going to be on the end of the line because I’m thinking about the thing that they show in the movie of, you know, Earth, space, Earth, space.  It was like that was one of my nightmares.  I don’t want that.  I don’t ever want to see that.  So you go very, very cautiously so you don’t have that problem.

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Coleman talks about whether the movie’s intense scenes are going to scare the kids:

Are kids going to think that space is scary and never want to be astronauts? I’ve thought about this. What happens when they see a big movie with a lot of action and things blow up and there’s big car chases.  A guy named Bruce makes a lot of those movies, right?  So when they see that movie, does it make them never want to get in a car? They all still want weapons, right?

I think it has to do with familiarity, that space is very unknown.  We don’t know much about it and it’s just maybe scary in that respect to a lot of people.  And what I’m hoping this movie will do is make space more familiar to folks, the fact that it’s just plain old normal that they’re up there.  I mean they’re up there and clearly a lot of people have been living up there on different space stations and space shuttles.  We’re fixing things.  So I’m hoping the familiarity helps and I’m hoping it doesn’t turn out that way. I know that I’ll make sure my son sees this movie early and with me and that we talk about what things are really like because people ask him about it.

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Gravity opens this weekend. If you can see it in IMAX 3D theater, it’s definitely worth the trip.

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