Gravity: Reel Science Compared to Real Science

Gravity Gets Mixed Reception from Scientific Community
Audiences have gone crazy over Alfonso Cuarón’s film about two astronauts who are stranded in space after being separated by a shower of space debris. Starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and featuring the off-camera acting skills of Ed Harris, the movie has set a very high bar for any future films set in space. But Gravity has gotten a mixed reception from the scientific community. Because of “reel” science getting compared to real science.

There has been some criticism about the science of the film. But certain “dignitaries” have given the movie a seal of approval. Buzz Aldrin, for example, loved the way that zero gravity was depicted in the film but he did say that he felt the views of earth were too clear. While astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson felt that the film took many liberties with scientific fact, he still admitted to loving the film.

Tyson has been tweeting, using the hashtag Mysteries of #Gravity, about the inaccuracies in the film. But, interestingly, his last tweet says: “#Gravity depicts a scenario that could happen.”

But NASA shuttle pilot Michael Interbartolo III took a shot at the trailer by pointing out that after 11 years of ferrying the shuttle around for Mission Control that the orbital mechanics and spaceflight operations were very “lax.” Which is perhaps the easiest thing to understand about Michael’s critique of the trailer. His overall complaint was that Cuarón’s film tried too hard to be factual without adhering faithfully to the facts.

The film did have NASA advisors prior to filming, but, not during the shoot itself. Opinions on this vary as to why, it seems that the space agency did not care for the reality of the situation being presented as entertainment. Tyson pointed out, as have several astronauts, that there is a lot of debris floating around up there.

Astronaut Catherine “Cady” Coleman, who logged over 4,330 between the space shuttle and the International Space Station, spoke extensively with Sandra Bullock. Prior to filming they two talked about being a female astronaut on a space mission which Bullock said helped her in the role of Ryan Stone.

The mixed reception that Gravity has gotten from the scientific community may be in part because Nasa, was not too happy with the film depicting “dangerous” space travel. But apart from the problems with orbital mechanics and spacecraft operations, the film does attempt to be as true to facts as possible. So it is a case of reel compared to real science that seems to be the sticking point.

The film faithfully recreates the Hubble and the ISS based on NASA documentaries, public domain photographs and U.S. and Russian space objects that the film’s production designer Andy Nicholson got from EBay.

Producer David Heyman pointed out that they wanted the realism of space without trying to make a documentary. He pointed out that it was a fictional story set in a factual location. One that was completely manufactured so that the film was “truthful” but not real.

Astronaut Mike Massimino, along with Cady Coleman, spoke at a Q & A session about the film and both gave the impression that NASA has grown to be a little less perturbed by Gravity’s plot. Massimino was impressed at the amount of detail that the filmmakers actually got right. But Coleman pointed out that, in reality, when Bullock’s character drifts by a fireball, she would have put it out.

But Massimino points out that what the film does best is showing what being in space is like. He obviously is not bogged down by all the minutiae that his “colleague” Interbartolo III was or the astrophysicist Tyson. But in the end, Tyson did admit that he enjoyed the film despite all the factual errors.

Gravity may have a mixed reception from the scientific community, but, audiences seem to have any problems with the film. In terms of box office, the film has broken all records for an October open. Space “experts” may be spending too much time worrying that the reel science doesn’t compare to real science, but that shouldn’t stop them from enjoying the film.

By Michael Smith
United Kingdom


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