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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

Gravity (2013), directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity -

Truth, Lord Byron wrote, is stranger than fiction. Byron, of course, never saw Gravity, but the more salient point is that the filmmakers have obviously never read Byron. Director Alfonso Cuarón and his son, Jonás, with whom he wrote the screenplay, seem to believe that mechanical and physical truth are enough, and the more pedantic, the better. Byron, on the other hand, was talking about morality, not physics -- human beings, in other words, not spaceships and oxygen tanks.

Gravity is like those Golden Age scientific puzzles written by people like Hal Clement. Clement, for example, wrote about a couple of astronauts on the lunar surface who are blinded when their faceplates begin collecting dust. Though they are running out of air, Clement isn't really interested in that sort of suspense: the story is all about solving the puzzle of the dust. It's a good story, actually ("Dust Rag"), but it's not the kind of thing even Clement would have imagined being paired with the likes of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and a hundred million dollar budget.

Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a mission specialist on her first space mission, and Clooney is Mission Commander Matt Kowalski. When the Russians inconveniently blow up one of their own satellites while Stone and Kowalski are outside the shuttle, it begins a chain reaction as debris from the strike destroys other satellites, with the whole discombobulated mess hurtling around Earth toward the astronauts. When it wipes out the shuttle, the puzzle becomes one of how to survive.

The human element is Stone herself, intelligent but frightened, and, of course, pulled down by an emotional gravity stemming from an event in her past. We see a lot of fear and some intelligence, but as for the rest, it's so light that, like helium, it defies gravity.

Mostly, we see physics in action, none of which should impress the science fiction fan, though I did enjoy one of the many examples of Newton's Third Law. I won't tell you whether or not it is successfully employed, but I also liked the overall solution to the puzzle. In a better movie, it could have been very exciting. Here, it's kind of like watching the Apollo 13 astronauts playing with their slide rules.

The movie is visually stunning. The same is true of Stanley Kubrick's 2001. The difference is, in Kubrick's film, the visuals are accompanied by a grand sense of wonder and a number of compelling mysteries that engage the mind as well as the eye. But this is a contemporary film, and the science is known and understood. The mind has nothing much to do.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin said he hoped the film would generate interest in space again, and if it did that it would justify its existence. It's difficult to see how it would, though. Nobody uses the story of the Titanic to get people interested in ocean travel.