We’re watching GRAVITY

8 Nov

Paul McAuley waves goodbye to Low Earth Orbit.

Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013)

In 2009, a defunct Russian satellite collided with an Iridium Communications satellite, creating a cloud of debris travelling faster than any speeding bullet. Low Earth Orbit is so crowded with hardware and discarded junk that another collision could initiate a chain reaction known as the Kessler syndrome, and destroy every satellite in LEO. That’s the inciting incident in Alfonso Cuarón’s new film, Gravity, which takes place almost entirely in LEO – an airless, free-fall environment subject to extremes of heat and cold in which, as a caption at the beginning of the film helpfully informs us, life is impossible.

Gravity is not only about surviving its version of the Kessler syndrome; it’s also about how human beings live and work in that impossible environment, and the precariousness of our foothold in space. At the beginning of the film, it looks easy enough. Routine. Mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), although still suffering from nausea a week after entering orbit aboard the Space Shuttle, is spacewalking, working on a bolt-on update to the Hubble Space Telescope. Meanwhile, her colleague is performing gleeful zero-gee gymnastics, and veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is buzzing around them and the shuttle, trialing a new jetpack. Their busy little idyll is shattered when, with almost no warning, the shuttle is struck by a hurtling swarm of debris. All communication with Earth lost; Stone and Kowalski, the only survivors, must use their training and ingenuity to conserve dwindling supplies of air and propellant, and overcome the unforgiving physics of velocity, mass and inertia, to make their way across gulfs of space, hopping between fragile, deteriorating refugia in search of a vehicle that will take them home before the debris swarm returns in its inexorable orbit.

Although it uses real, beautifully rendered hardware and the experiences of actual astronauts to clothe itself in verisimilitude, the film occasionally scants or twists facts in service of its narrative – line-of-sight navigation isn’t a matter of point and pray, communications satellites don’t all share the same orbital volume, and so on. And while its realistic depiction of life in space echoes the early fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, and there are nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, and WALL-E (and a plot twist borrowed from Robinson Crusoe on Mars), Gravity has much more in common with survival films like Open Water, 127 Hours or Touching the Void; despite various ingenious twists, the story follows a fairly conventional trajectory of spirit and endurance overcoming extreme peril. But it unreels with irresistible momentum, and its dynamic, free-flying camera work erases any sense of earthbound notions of up or down, reflecting the vertiginous terror of the characters as they tumble through expanding fields of debris, endure smashing collisions and scrabble for precarious handholds in an environment that doesn’t forgive a single misstep.

In the seamless opening sequence, there’s a lovely moment when the camera revolves away from Clooney, taking in a vast panorama of black space and the raw beauty of Earth’s blue-white curve before returning to him. And immediately after the first strike of the debris swarm, we briefly move inside Bullock’s helmet as she tumbles helplessly, assuming her point of view before drawing back to show her falling away against a vast panorama of stars. Both are terrific examples of something that science fiction can no longer call its own, now that human beings and their surrogates have ventured to the other side of Earth’s sky: the sense of wonder generated by sudden, enormous changes in scale. Apart from its considerable technical achievement, the real triumph of Cuarón’s swift, spare thriller is to frame a compelling human story within the sublime terror of the infinite.

@Unlikely Worlds

Also on the blog: Paul McAuley sends a desperate dispatch from World War Z

Read Paul McAuley’s “The Man” in Post Human Conditions (Arc 1.2), out now.

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