atomic_fungus (atomic_fungus) wrote,

#4155: Lucky for them there's no Oscar for OBEYING TEH F-ING LAWS OF PHYSICS

Yes, we watched Gravity last night.

Oh my God.

The scale of inaccuracy is approximately thus:
1. Correct
2. A bit inaccurate
3. Minor error
4. Wrong
6. Did you actually check any of this before you started, or are you just making it up?
7. Jesus Christ! What the hell are you assholes smoking?
8. So far divorced from reality that massive overhaul is required before it can be wrong.
The physics employed by the writers of Gravity (G) started at 3 and never improved past that point, and at one point actually managed to bounce the needle off the peg at 8. I don't believe I can explain without spoilers so SPOILER ALERT!!! I'll try, though, and note the inaccuracy level (IL) as needed.

And the worst part is, if they had gotten this stuff right, this movie would have been an incredibly riveting masterwork of SF. Instead it's a mediocre Hollywood mishmash which is frequently not even wrong.

Right off the bat they assert that the temperature of low Earth orbit has a certain range. Uh, space has no temperature; it's a vacuum. Vacuum is nothing; nothing cannot have a temperature. Now, it is true that objects in low Earth orbit may have a certain temperature, but space itself does not. (IL 3)

So there's Sandra Bullock, "Ryan", who is up for her first time and working on Hubble. It's stated quite clearly that she had only six months of training before going up.

NO. Just NO. NASA wouldn't do that, not the NASA of the real world. If there was someone sent up after such an abbreviated training schedule, he sure as hell wouldn't be sent EVA to modify a delicate scientific instrument. That kind of work takes a lot of training, and no matter how smart you are six months simply is not enough time. They certainly wouldn't send someone with six months' worth of training EVA like that. (IL 4)

There was no readily identifiable reason for Ryan to be positioned as a NASA "outsider", either, except that Ryan needed to be devoid of "the right stuff" and you get your RS implant surgically installed on the third day of your seventh month of training. After that you always automatically know how to cope with catastrophic mission failures, and you do it with aplomb and dry wit. Why, look at how George Clooney reacted when the shit hit the fan!


So she's working away at whatever the hell she's doing, and Mission Control (MC) informs them that the Russians tested an antisatellite (ASAT) weapon on one of their old spy satellites but the debris field is in a different orbit and not a threat to shuttle Explorer or their mission.

...and then after some stuff happens, suddenly ISS is being evacuated and the EVA is canceled and everyone has to get inside because--


--because the Russian ASAT test somehow set off a "chain reaction" that is destroying satellites all over the place and making a huge debris field that is destroying everything in its path. They're warned that communications might be interrupted as a whole slew of communications satellites are being smashed. (IL 6.5)

I objected to this. Communications satellites are in geostationary orbit, some 24,700 kilometers higher than the orbit Explorer is in at the start of the movie. Even a spectacularly devastating collision between two low-orbit objects cannot propel fragmets into geosync; and if some did manage to get that high, it wouldn't be enough to knock anything out of geosync orbit. There simply isn't enough energy available.

I didn't really notice this one last night, because the action picks up here and a lot of stuff happens at once, but the debris field itself had an impossibly large difference of energy. If you're in a space station that's orbiting Earth, anything in your orbit must be going the same speed you're going. You can have junk cross your orbit, and that's bad news, but that's not what they showed. The entire movie was, in fact, chock-full of 2D thinking, as everything that happened took place in a single plane.

So they get a visual on the incoming debris (IL 6) and it passes by at about 35, 40 MPH while smashing everything to shit. Ryan is hanging on the end of the shuttle arm, and it gets smashed free, cartwheeling out into the cosmos. Objects that smashed into other objects plowed right through them and kept going, rather than having their trajectories altered. (IL 7)

(No, you couldn't see the debris coming. MC says the stuff is moving around Earth at 20,000 miles an hour--5.5 miles per second--and most objects aren't large enough for you to see far away enough to say, "Oh noes, here comes the stuff that's about to fuck up my life." Even if you could see it coming, it would be past you before you managed "Oh noes".)

George Clooney tells Ryan to detach herself from the arm because he's going to lose visual on her. Yes, instead of staying attached to a big object, make yourself as small as possible. Brilliant! And because she's not at the center of mass of the thing, around which the whole mess is rotating, what do you think would happen if she unbuckled herself and let go of the thing?

Go to YouTube and look up videos demonstrating the use of the atlatl. I'll wait.

Yes, Ryan would be flung away from the arm at some velocity greater than if she stayed with it.

Mrs. Fungus asked me, "Can't she stop spinning?"

Me: "No, she can't. Unless she runs into something, or something stops her, she'll keep right on spinning like that for the rest of the movie."

See, here's why I think Ryan could have been a regular astronaut. Most mission training doesn't include things like having the shuttle smashed to shit and everyone killed because you can't plan for an emergency of that magnitude (not the least because it's physically fucking impossible). It would have been just fine for her to lose her shit the way she did.

...but think about how scary it could have been, how tense it could have been, if they couldn't see the stuff smashing the shuttle (the way reality would work). Can't see it coming, just random death and destruction, like being shot at--done right that would have been incredibly riveting. (They get this right at the beginning of Pitch Black, where pap-pap some kind of gravel or something is punching holes in the ship--it's scary as hell.)

So the shuttle is smashed and open to space, and everyone is dead, so all they can do is go to ISS! ...which, coincidentally, is in the same orbital plane as Hubble and Explorer (and the Chinese space station). (IL 6) So all they have to do is jet on over there using Clooney's magical Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) which apparently he cannot stop using, because every time we see him he's diddling the controls and making the thing spurt gas and changing his trajectory. Every time...until they get close to ISS and ZOMG he's almost out of gas and they have to make a grab at the station as they go past.

Ryan's leg is tangled in Soyuz parachute shrouds and she's come to a stop relative to the station. She's got hold of a tether attached to George, the tether is taut, and they have BOTH stopped moving relative to the station. But it's time for Big Self-sacrifice Scene, so Ryan's tangled leg begins to slip, George Clooney bravely releases his tether, and he drifts off into space, leaving her safely connected to ISS by the parachute shrouds.

I've decided that little green men are pulling on George's legs, and that's why he was being pulled away from ISS. Because there is simply no other reason she could not have hauled him in at that point. They'd stopped moving! In fact there wasn't much tension on his tether, either; he grabs it, looks at the bight in his hands, and then gravely unhooks the carabiner like he's unplugging an electric lawn mower or something--THERE IS NO TENSION ON THE DAMNED TETHER.

...yet after he releases it, he drifts away into space.


And here the needle bounces off IL 8.

There are about a thousand things they could have done differently which wouldn't have required that evil Martians pull him away from the space station, and many of them would have been more dramatic, rather than less. They played it the way they did because they didn't know any better and because Plot Devicium demanded the Heroic Sacrifice, and it was bleeding obvious.

Having hit the abyssal nadir of MOTHERF__KING WRONG!!! the movie improved from there. Much of the rest of it was wildly unlikely, but that's not much of an issue. Again and again the people who made this movie turned away from doing things that would have been correct and would have made it better, but they either confined themselves either to errors they'd already made, or else they were minor and of no consequence to the plot or the maintenance of suspense.

They did a lot of little things right. The fire on the space station, the way tools and things drift away when you let go of them, things like that--but they got the big things wrong, things they hung the plot on.

The movie is impossible without the cascade effect destroying all the satellites and making a huge moving debris field. That's impossible; there's no air resistance or drag in space and an object in motion tends to remain in motion, but that doesn't mean that it's a magic billards table where energy can be added to objects but never subtracted. If one object strikes another, slower, object, both their trajectories change, and that never happened here. Instead, the faster object kept going in a straight line and the object that was struck had its trajectory changed, often radically.

But "willing suspension of disbelief" got me past that problem, which is why I didn't notice it until this morning. But having asked us to accept that, they then ask us to accept a whole bunch of other things which are equally impossible, and the only way a person can do that is if he's utterly ignorant of science, particularly physics.

The movie is successful because most people don't understand physics past the fifth grade level. The people making the film didn't look past their Earthly experience and instead treated the debris like bullets and the other stuff like stationary targets, and no one realized that in orbit everything is falling, and there's nothing holding ISS or the shuttle or Sandra Bullock in any particular place.

Okay, the guy that got killed early in the disaster sequence--we see him get suddenly thrown to the end of his tether, but later we see that something blasted right through his face, leaving a perfectly square hole through his head. You can't have it both ways; if there was enough momentum transfer to fling his body around like that, he wouldn't have had a head. But if there's a perfect hole through his head and the exit wound isn't larger than the entry wound, then the missile that struck him would not have transferred very much momentum to him at all and he wouldn't have been tossed around like a rag doll. (It would have been moving far too fast to see--miles per second--and that part they got right.)

There's no consideration for where the energy comes from and where it goes to in this movie. Ultimately that's why I had so much trouble with the damned thing; the story they're telling is like something written by a sixth grader. It's full of bang and zoom and flash, but it's almost completely ignorant of how the world works.

The prime rule of SF--really, of storytelling in general--is to establish your rules and then live by them. By putting these people in orbit around the Earth in the early 21st century, they established that this is supposed to be a true-to-life story set against a highly realistic backdrop, following all the rules that exist in the real world.

When you do this, you are allowed one or two mulligans, things you can say, "Okay, I know X is true, but in order to tell my story I need for it not to be true, so just this once...?" I let them have the thing about the ASAT test causing all this orbital junk (though not the part about it taking out geosync satellites) because that's part of the bargain you make when you watch a movie.

The people behind Gravity instead took mulligan after mulligan after mulligan. Ultimately the movie suffered for it, and I think that winning all those Oscars has blinded everyone to how much better it could have been if it had been 100% true to life and physically accurate. Gadzooks, I get shivers when I imagine the scene where Sandra Bullock is hanging on the outside of a Soyuz capsule and stuff she can't see is peppering ISS and knocking it to pieces, and then ZING! something pops a hole in the Soyuz's solar panel--that would have been amazing.

Instead, conventional "trash bashing something to junk" scene played out at highway speeds. *sigh*

* * *

Well, I didn't hate the movie. It certainly was suspenseful, and they did a good job of making the viewer care about Ryan and her predicament. But I didn't like it, and I didn't like it because they did it wrong.

Then again, I find it hard to like any movie that begins with a flat statement, "Life in space is impossible." It's not; if it were, everyone would have been dead before the shitstorm hit.

Yes, humans have to bring their habitat with them. We need spacesuits and -ships and -stations to live there. But if you think about it, we need houses and clothes and other protections from about 90% of the environments we encounter on Earth. By that standard, life on most of Earth is "impossible". I certainly couldn't stay alive in an Illinois winter without my house and clothing and coat, could I?

My other dissatisfaction with this movie stems from the fact that I cannot figure out why it won so big at the Oscars. If a suspenseful story was all it took, we'd see a lot less art house bullshit winning awards; therefore there must be something about the story itself, something political, that I'm missing. The anti-ASAT part of it seems too minor a reason--it's the cause of the story's conflict but it's not shown and not referred to more than once or twice. Certainly no one is saying, "Oh, those evil people trying to weaponize space!" over and over and over again, and one of the movie's (few) strong points is its complete lack of obvious editorialization. It doesn't bludgeon you over the head with a message (unlike the slavery movie, I am told) so why did it win so big? Why was it nominated so many times?

Well, it's not my problem. I don't have to watch it again.

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