Gravity

I didn’t write this up for a while. I just chalked it up as a really bad movie and a waste of talent and forgot about it. Then some gombeen gave that dross seven Oscars, so I wanted to rant a bit. Who gives out Oscars for proving that with only an obscene amount of money and a team of personal trainers, dieticians, professional lighting experts, veteran cameramen and a ground-breaking special effects team, a fifty-year-old woman can look good in her pants?

There were one or two good parts. I liked the effects. Sod that, I loved the effects, they were outstanding. I liked that someone paid huge amounts of attention to detail in the props (seriously, read any of the commentary by astronauts who worked on the ISS, they’re impressed by the level of detail there). The effects and the set design are hands-down the best I’ve ever seen in a space movie. Go find the guy who did the set design and give him another Oscar and then find the girl who did the effects and give her the Oscar for the next three years, their work was that good (and yes, I know, teams, those are metaphorical guys and girls I’m talking about). But the director and the writer? They took a fresh steaming bowel movement all over the entire thing by ignoring basic physics to shoehorn a really awful plot into a really great set of filmmaking tools and sets. Why didn’t they just take any one of the several hundred other books that have been written in the last few decades that had “space disaster” as a plot and where the math and reality actually didn’t take a day off? Go get the ones that won Hugos or Nebula awards if you think the search would be too difficult or time-consuming. There are hundreds of great plots and huge amounts of great writing out there that would do those sets and effects proud.

But this film? This plot, and this acting?
Utter and total crap. Crap with a capital shite.

What was wrong with it?
Well…

  • There’s the bit about the payload specialist being on an EVA when NASA barely let payload specialists out of their seat because they weren’t trained enough – being on EVA in a suit takes a lot more training than that.
  • There’s the general point that it’s hard to believe that anyone who got through NASA training and psychological selection would be such a whiny little girly-girl. Astronauts, even payload specialists, aren’t exactly the most panicky of people.
  • There’s the rather large physics area itself, which is totally ignored for 99% of the movie, which sucks in a movie about being in space because you lose out on so much cool stuff. For example, when you get hit by orbital debris traveling at several thousand miles an hour faster than a rifle bullet (actually for the data they give in the movie, it’d have to be about 32,000 miles per hour), you don’t get a neat hole in your head, you get disrupted – that is, you get turned into a rapidly expanding cloud of pink vapour and dispersed over such a wide are that you couldn’t see the remains anymore, all so fast that the human eye couldn’t see what was going on. Hyperkinetic impacts are seriously outside our range of experience, but you could have done some really cool special effects there and nope, wasn’t even tried. I mean, seriously, Call of Duty: Ghosts can do it, but Hollywood can’t? I don’t buy that.
  • Physics again – the orbital debris cloud that shows up every 90 minutes? The shuttle worked in low earth orbit where orbit times vary from 80-odd minutes to 120-odd minutes. So you could have orbital debris that goes round the earth in 90 minutes – but it’d be doing thiry miles an hour relative to you, not thiry thousand, because you’d be in an 90-minute orbit too and going in the same direction at the same speed (if you go faster in an orbit, your orbit gets larger and you go up and away from the planet and now you can’t hit anything in that original orbit). For debris to be going that fast and be in any orbit where you’d see it twice at 90-minute intervals, it would have to be going the other way round and you’d have to be in a 180-minute orbit. But a 180-minute orbit is so high up the shuttle couldn’t have gotten up there in the first place (and the Hubble’s in a 97-minute orbit so why would they try to go there anyway?) So you wouldn’t even be in trouble in the first place.
  • Physics again, you can’t see incoming orbital debris traveling at 32,000 miles per hour because it’s small, unlit and probably not all that reflective and won’t have a light source trained on it, and it’s moving too damn fast – it’d be like trying to see a rifle bullet in flight from downrange. Only harder, because this rifle bullet is moving 30,000 mph faster than normal rifle bullets. And if you *could* see it, some glint of sunlight off it, the cloud of debris would have to be so close or so large that you couldn’t get clear, and at 30,000 mph, you would be at most a few seconds away from not having to worry about anything at all.
  • You don’t use an MMU (or SAFER, the newer version of the MMU) near solar panels because you’d destroy them, you’d get the exhaust particles all over them. And they’re a bit expensive. As astronauts have already pointed out.
  • You don’t do vacuum-o-batics in an untethered spacesuit because (a) you’d risk getting motion sickness because of the lack of a reference plane and puking in a spacesuit has a tendency to be fatal especially in zero gravity, (b) you have limited fuel so you don’t waste it, and (c) you have a job to be doing. You don’t go out on an EVA in an untethered suit with half of ground control holding their breath waiting for something to go wrong and kill you when you just want to hover there and “supervise”, this isn’t a county council suit-wearer watching a bunch of lads digging ditches by the side of the road for health and safety. And that’s not even taking into account a possible failure in the suit’s thrusters mid-stunt, which could lead to damaging the thing you’re trying to fix.
  • Physics again, no MMU or SAFER unit has enough fuel to get from the Hubble orbit to the ISS orbit. For pete’s sake, the only time in NASA history that they had two orbiters on the pad prepped to go at the same time was when they launched the shuttle mission to fix the Hubble because even the damn shuttle itself didn’t have enough fuel to go from the Hubble to the ISS if something went wrong and they’d need to send up a rescue mission.
  • Common sense, you’d never put another Hubble-sized object in an orbit close enough to get from it to the ISS on suit thrusters because it’d put the entire ISS – tens of billions of euros worth of hardware from several nations – at risk in case of a simple hardware failure on either platform. If the suit could make it, so could damn near anything else if a thruster fired because of a failure or something went pop at the wrong moment.
  • More common sense, you’d never run an anti-satellite test in the tiny tiny timeframe that a shuttle mission represents, you’d just wait two or three days. Engineers can always use another few days to tweak things.
  • History kicks in too, the cascade failure they’re talking about has been a known problem since the 1970s at least but it takes months to happen and even large single incidents wouldn’t be sufficient on their own to trigger it (if you blow up a satellite, all the bits do fly away from each other, but not fast enough to change their orbit by much, so hitting another satellite would be unlikely unless there were far more satellites up there than even we have now).
  • Physics yet again, if you stick someone on the end of that robot arm and hit it with debris doing that kind of speed, the impact is going to transmit so much energy up the arm and into their spine that they’ll probably be jelly before they start spinning away even if they get missed by all the other debris. A can of coke hitting the arm at those speeds transfers around 191 kilojoules of energy – the equivalent to about a half-kilo of TNT or about 15-20 hand grenades, all acting like a hammer on the end of a metal rod (the joints won’t have time to flex and take up that much of an impact) that has your spinal column on the other end. Even with half the energy going towards the shuttle and the metal of the arm absorbing some by deforming, she won’t be disoriented and panicy after the impact, she’ll be strawberry jelly with crunchy bits in a bag.

And even if all that didn’t apply and even if you wanted to go to the ISS from the disaster site (though by that point you’d be either pink mist scattered over a cubic kilometer or in the best case scenario, a colander, because orbital debris the size of paint flakes will punch holes in space shuttle tiles, let alone humans), and even if you had a big tank of fuel attached to the suit to do so and even if the engines on the suit were able to burn that long without failing and killing the guy wearing it, and even if you could see the ISS from Hubble without a scope well enough to aim (you probably can) and even if you could do the orbital math in your head and control the burn (you probably can’t unless you’re a savant and the software in any kit you have won’t be programmed to let you do that and no, it’s not general-purpose anything, it’s a SUIT, not a ship, and who’d program a suit to be able to figure out how to do things it can never ever do in reality?); and even if you got there on the air you had (unlikely, especially if you were towards the end of an EVA as they were supposed to be), and even if you did grab on to the ISS on arrival (at orbital velocities? I don’t think so. Grab a bus that hasn’t stopped sometime and see how well you do), you wouldn’t go flying off into the void if you let go once you’d been stopped by all the straps and stuff wrapped around your whiny girly-girl companion. You’d just hang there, all embarressed at having to share space with someone your own age for once.

Mind you, that might be worse in a film. You know they’d then have to go into the station and then she’d take off her suit for the inevitable sex scene (despite most of the medical research saying that might not be as pleasant an activity as you’d think thanks to microgravity’s effects on the human body) and then you’d find the whiny idiot wasn’t wearing the undersuit garment all astronauts wear, or even a pair of socks and was now suffering gangrene and frostbite in her toes (space, oddly, is COLD) – but hey, nothing says “Oscar-winning sex scene” like cutting off your partner’s toes in a sexy way. Maybe he could bite them off with his teeth? C’mon, you can see Clooney sexily spitting a black gangrenous toe out in zero gravity, can’t you?

But no, we couldn’t afford him for the full film (or someone showed him just how stupid the script was going to get), so instead he floats off into the black… for about an hour and a half. Because he’s not moving very fast relative to the ISS, and that means his orbit is very very similar to the ISS orbit and that means that in under an hour and a half, he’s going to be back at the station in grabbing range again. That’s just orbital mechanics for you.

But lets ignore that, and let’s climb into an obviously damaged and abandoned ISS, where the most obvious threat is that there’s a hole somewhere letting all the air out, and lets take off the suit, the one thing that keeps her alive (have to see her pants, don’t we?), even though getting into and out of a US spacesuit is widely reported by all the astronauts who’ve done it as being a pain in the backside and something that takes a fair amount of time and effort to do even with help, let alone solo; and after a little cry – that doesn’t even do what tears do in space and you can go look at the actual ISS commander crying on youtube to show this – let’s go back into the haunted house – sorry, space station.

Then lets have a trained astronaut ignore fire, even though it’s one of the most dangerous things they worry about because the usual consequence of fire on a spacecraft is “died in a fire” (and don’t tell me she didn’t see the fire, she has working ears and floated right past it — it’s fire, not a ninja, though the ninja might be more believable at this stage), and then let’s have the trained astronaut show a complete lack of ability to prioritise problems and ignore basic air, water, shelter and food survival checklists.

Then let’s watch her panic at a fire alarm every astronaut will have had training for, and then let’s watch her abandon tens of billions of euros of space station and her best chance at survival when she doesn’t stay in her fecking suit and dump the station’s atmosphere to put the fire out, but instead gets into the Soyuz pod that she would definitely not be trained to fly because she’s just a payload specialist not a pilot, and which she already knows can’t be used to escape and go home in because she was physically tangled up in its parachute — which is sortof like running back into the house in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in terms of good ideas.

Then after we destroy decades of work by thousands of people worth tens of billions of euros and which represents the dreams of millions of people working in the STEM fields, let’s have her fly over to the Chinese space station, which we’ve placed in an orbit close enough to get to from the ISS in a Soyuz (no, you can’t do that in reality) because hell, why bother with orbital mechanics, economics, politics, national security or common sense any more because we gave that up several acts back?

Then let’s have her get into it as it deorbits (why the hell is it deorbiting?), ripping off a WALL-E sequence in the process because if you’re not drunk in self-defence by now you ought to be, and then let’s get into YET ANOTHER SPACECRAFT (seriously, this woman has just gone through several decades worth of the combined space program budget and hardware of several nations at this point), which she also does not know how to fly and then let’s have her navigate what would be a nightmare training scenario for an experienced trained shuttle pilot, let alone a whiny girly-girl with no piloting experience and who’s spent quite a lot of the last hour or ten (it feels like ten at this point) suffering sufficiently bad oxygen deprivation that she’s had full-blown audio and visual hallucinations which means she’s definitely having hand-eye coordination problems and probably a dose of the shakes that make the DTs look like a mild headache.

And then when we have her manage to not only not turn into plasma on the way down, but safely splash-land, lets have her sink the pod by blowing the door off, something that accidentally happened to one NASA astronaut during the Mercury program and which haunted his professional career to his death and he wasn’t cleared of it until thirty-odd years later — but lets have her do it deliberately because waiting in the capsule that’s designed to float until rescue arrived seemed too difficult.

And then after she nearly drowns but manages to just scramble ashore, as the film ends, lets have her bravely walk away from the crash site into an unknown landscape with no food, no water, no shelter in sight and not even any shoes – WHEN HALF THE LARGEST AIR FORCE AND NAVY IN THE WORLD IS ON ITS WAY TO FIND HER and every single piece of survival training in the world tells you to stay with the car/ship/plane after a crash unless it’s physically exploding. And if it does explode, come back to it when it’s done with the exploding. Those courses all stress it this heavily – you walk away from the crash site, you die. Stay with the crash site, you get found. And maybe live. I get that the scene is meant to be showing the indomitable human will to survive in a difficult universe, but bollocks to that, all it’s actually showing off is Sandra Bullock in her pants as she does the stupidest thing possible, which is basically the same thing the film’s spent the last hour and a bit showing us repeatedly and it was a tired joke after the first ten minutes.

This film’s just a big pile of horse manure from start to finish (admittedly – and it’s worse because of this – served up on the shiniest silver tray you’ve ever seen in your life). And no, I’m not nit-picking and being pedantic about something that doesn’t really matter. NASA is meant to be the best of the best, the most highly trained people in the world, working in an utterly alien environment that will kill you before you know it if things go wrong, pushing the edges of what we know and what we can do and build in the process. They train for scenarios that are even more far fetched than this movie (no, seriously, that thing where she’s on the arm spinning away from the station? That’s a training scenario. A British astronaut wrote about it for the Observer a few days ago, go read it). NASA represents what happens when, instead of spending the bulk of the world’s economy on armies and navies and punching each other in the face, we give a small fraction of that economy to the smartest people in the room and give them the hardest task we can think of. We said “go to the moon” when the Americans had just figured out how to get a guy off the launch pad without killing him more often than four or five percent of the time. Nobody knew a damn thing about anything and yet, inside a decade, Neil Armstrong is leaving footprints in the lunar dust that will quite probably outlast the nation that he was born in. And they’d kicked off the computer industry. And basically invented aluminum. And developed a thousand and one other fundamental products and processes that kickstarted the entire modern world we live in today. So when a film like this gets made, it has the potential to be another Apollo 13, but for the modern space program (or hell, for the new startups like SpaceX). This film could have been the kind of thing that pulls a new generation into the STEM fields to build whole new crazy worlds and technologies. It could have helped to change the world.

Instead, we got a whiny eejit having adventures in her pants. It’s worse than terrible. It’s a waste.

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