The Gravity of the Situation

Contributed by
Jul 26, 2013
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I’ve been hearing about the movie Gravity for quite some time; it stars George Clooney and Sandra Bullock as astronauts, but that’s all I knew until I saw the intensely terrifying trailer for it in the theater. A new trailer is now online that has some more detail, and it’s intenser and terrifyinger. Make sure to set it to hi-def and make it full screen.

Holy yikes. I’m not sure exactly how this was done, but it’s all in one take. The graphics are stunning.

I like the mix of reality and movie-making, too. Note that the debris all passes silently—no air means no noise in space. All we hear are the voices of the astronauts, controllers on the ground, and the music. The director uses a nice little visual trick of having Bullock scream just as she passes in front of the camera on the wildly spinning robot arm, making us feel viscerally that she’s closer to us.

The speed of the incoming debris is fairly plausible; orbital speeds are several kilometers per second, and due to the different angles and trigonometry involved, collisions can be faster or slower than that. The shrapnel and consequent tumbling of the debris feels right, too.

There are some compromises for the fiction. For one thing, of course, the shuttle is no longer flying. That’s OK—it’s a story. For another, the Manned Maneuvering Unit (the jet-pack spacesuit, if you prefer) Clooney is in—while an actual NASA device—doesn’t fly around that quickly; it would be very dangerous to make moves that rapidly on a spacewalk!

There’s a moment where an astronaut in the shuttle payload bay gets hit, and there’s a swooshing sound as he gets flung to the end of his tether. However, that might simply be part of the music playing, put in on purpose again to trigger our more Earth-bound sense of motion.

It’s been many years since I’ve used Hubble Space Telescope, but it was still jarring and upsetting seeing it destroyed like that. But wow, what a scene.

I’ve heard the movie is a real-time depiction of this disaster, and given this trailer, it looks like this will be a very intense flick. As usual I want to remain relatively in the dark about the plot; I prefer an existence of minimal spoilers in my life. But I’ll add my friend Kevin Grazier was the science adviser for Gravity, and he’s a professional planetary scientist and sci-fi fan (which is why we do the Science of Science Fiction panel every year at Comic-Con and “The Phil and Kevin Show”—where we dissect some aspect of science and/or science fiction—at Dragon*Con every year as well). So I expect this movie will be one very much worth seeing in the theater. It opens in October, and I’ll be one of the first in line.

Tip o’ the spacesuit visor to io9.