On the movie Gravity

This movie, which should have been entitled Zero-Gravity is more like a documentary or a NOVA Program on how one feels in a Space Shuttle than a movie with an interesting plot or witty dialogues.

I am glad I saw the movie because it is very well done, capturing the interest and attention of the audience, who are made to feel very sympathetic with the lost astronauts.  Thanks to computer gimmicks every terrible situation is made to look very realistic.

The story – if one can call it such – is about two astronauts in the Space Shuttle Explorer who encounter a terrible situation when they are on a spacewalk to set something right in the Hubble Telescope. A Russian satellite, which had been struck by a missile, had exploded, and its debris had created what was like an asteroid zone: countess fast moving chunks of matter were zooming in orbit. The space-walking astronauts Matt Kowalski and Dr. Ryan Stone (female) as also their shuttle were bombarded by the zooming debris.

Now begin the adventures. Using thruster backs the two try to move towards an International Space Station a hundred km away.  They are connected by a tether. As they glide towards a rescue spot, speaking to each other via radio, Matt tells Ryan about his family, and talks about a  daughter who had died at school. It is hard to believe that he had not found time to discuss this family tragedy with the trailing astronaut  until they were floating helplessly in orbit.

At one point he detaches himself from the poor woman, much against her begging him not to leave her in the lurch. His argument is that there was a greater chance of her survival if she were left to herself. It is not clear that this was the only option. He wanted to beat the record of a Russian astronaut, he says. That did not sound very intelligent under those circumstances. But it jolted the emotions of the audience: which is the goal of any story telling or movie making. Matt moves away into the dark void like the Voyager, God alone knows where to.

Now we have this brave but helpless dame in distress, moving from a Russian Soyuz module which catches fire to a Chinese space station. In her attempt to make contact with ground she  hears an Inuit fisherman, laughing away about something, perhaps a fish-joke; but poor Ryan doesn’t find it funny at all, though at one point she herself giggles nervously. She has a series of unhappy experiences, having to fight a fire with an extinguisher, getting in and out of her space suit more than once, and so on. At one point, she attempts suicide. The toxic gas induces a hallucination to the effect that Matt bursts into the capsule and reprimands her for not having learned some chapters of the Shuttle manual better.

Ultimately she manages to get the hell out of the shuttle-world and plunges earthward in a colorful parachute, only to be dumped into a lake. Here too misfortune strikes her. As she tries to get out of her space capsule water rushes in and she is literally drowned: gravity is stronger than the buoyant force. But after more than a minute of holding her breath, she does come back to the surface, and swims to muddy land. Then she gets up and experiences the full joy of gravity, normal-reaction and all: the cosmic force which keeps us glued to the earth, and about which we seldom inquire. Ryan Stone walks away, presumably to find some sympathetic help.

It was an interesting experience, sitting through the show with the goggles which doubled the ticket price, and made me feel as if the splinters were coming right at me. The roomy hollow of the space capsules and the dark depths of space itself could all be felt as if in real life. All in all, it was fun watching this movie which is more convincing than most sc-fis.

Perhaps the movie could have been made more understandable and meaningful to lay people if it had started at a mission-briefing center in Houston where the astronauts were given a talk on what could happen in a zero-gravity situation, about Soyuz and Tiangong, about the effects of angular momentum conservation, speeds of cosmic debris, etc.   Such a short introduction would have helped many in the audience (especially the non-initiated in physics) better appreciate, enjoy, and be educated by the movie.

October 19, 2013

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Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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