Experts pull sci-fi thriller ‘Gravity’ to Earth

Lost in space: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in a scene from Gravity.

‘Gravity’, the new space thriller with George Clooney, has critics and audiences giddy with praise. But some physicists are less impressed. Should there be more science in science fiction?

‘Breathtaking’, ‘astonishing’, ‘a masterpiece’. ‘What cinema at its best should be’: the critics are near unanimous. Alfonso Cuaron’s new blockbuster Gravity is, according to one, ‘the most exciting science fiction adventure thriller ever made.’

If box office figures are anything to go by, audiences appear to agree. Gravity rocketed to the top of US charts as soon as it was released two weeks ago, and so far it has refused to fall back down. It is set to break records for films released in October.

What is this film that has caused such a sensation? Gravity is a 3D thriller featuring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts striving desperately to return to Earth after a catastrophic accident blows their space shuttle apart. The entire film takes place in zero-gravity, either on shuttles and satellites or in the vertiginous vacuum of outer space.

The film has been hailed as a terrifyingly believable depiction of off-planet weightlessness. And real-life astronauts praised the film’s attention to detail, with locations such as the International Space Station matching reality almost to perfection.

But there is a problem: while the film is faithful in its visual details, the science behind it is not quite so lifelike – as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter to point out. How, he asked, can three space stations whose orbits are hundreds of miles apart all be within sight of one another? What is a medical doctor doing servicing a space station? And without gravity, how does Sandra Bullock keep her hair from flying loose?

Other experts have spotted yet more flaws. ‘To have the movie astronauts zip over to the space station,’ said one science journalist, ‘would be like having a pirate tossed overboard in the Caribbean swim to London.’ Improbable to say the least – especially with the outdated jetpack used in the film.

So while the film gets an A* for art, its science grade may not be quite so impressive. But how much does that matter?

The opinion of director Alfonso Cuaron, meanwhile, lies somewhere in between: ‘within the frame of the story, we wanted to be as accurate as possible.’ But telling a good story always requires ‘big, big leaps’ – and Gravity is no exception.

Weighty matters

Most ordinary cinema-goers will struggle to feel any outrage. This is fiction, after all, not a documentary, and scientific rigour is secondary to considerations of story and style.

But strict science buffs are not so easily appeased: films like Gravity claim to be accurate portrayals of life in space, they say – that’s a huge part of their appeal. If you want to make a realistic sci-fi movie, it’s dishonest to be flexible with the facts.

You Decide

  1. Do you prefer films and books to seem realistic? Why / why not?
  2. Does science fiction help or hinder the public’s understanding of science?

Activities

  1. Pick a scene from a sci-fi film and investigate whether it obeys the laws of science.
  2. Briefly explain what gravity is and why it has so little influence on astronauts in outer space.

Some People Say...

“Science fiction makes for neither good science nor good fiction.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Sci-fi is for nerds.
That’s an unfair generalisation. Besides, what qualifies as science fiction? We’re not talking about aliens and space battles here: the props and locations involved in Gravity is a reality of the present day. And even science fiction films that are set in the future don’t have to be fantasies like Star Wars.
What do you mean?
Some are genuinely realistic depictions of where technology might take us. Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report is packed with predictions from scientists and futurologists, for instance, while sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke was famous for his refusal to compromise on scientific fact. Once he spent 20 pages of mathematical working ensuring that a fragment of description accorded with physics.

Word Watch

Space shuttle
A vessel used by NASA in orbit to transport people and equipment between objects in space (such as the Hubble Telescope or the International Space Station). All of NASA’s space shuttles were retired in 2011, and are set to be replaced by a range of alternative spacecraft.
Zero-gravity
All matter exerts a pull over other matter, the size of which is proportional to its mass. But this force, gravity, is weak, and unless the object in question is very massive indeed (like a planet or a sun) its influence can hardly be felt. Earth is large enough to keep its inhabitants on the ground; a space station, say, is not.
Vacuum
A space in which no matter is present. Space is not in fact a perfect vacuum, but the particles it harbours are sparsely enough dispersed to make it function like one.
International Space Station
The biggest man-made satellite, a cooperative project between space agencies all over the world devoted to carrying out scientific studies in fields ranging from particle physics to biology.
Jetpack
Yes, these do exist! Within the gravitational pull of Earth, however, it takes an enormous amount of energy to keep a human off the ground. The amount of fuel involved is too heavy to make jetpacks a feasible method of transport.

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