Gravity: Story Trumps Accuracy in Fiction

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Gravity is a fantastic movie. If you haven’t seen it yet, I highly recommend it. Blow the extra bucks on the 3D version—totally worth it.

Let me just say also, I love astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

I need to make that clear right up front.

He is not only a brilliant man, he’s a COOL and brilliant man. That’s an awesome combination.

When it comes to arguing the pro-science side, he’s the guy you want on your team.

When we’re talking about real life, that is.

When it comes to critiquing a movie, however, he kind of sucks.

(Sorry, Neil. Really, I love you, man.)

A few days after the movie Gravity, directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuaron, opened—to a record-breaking box-office take and many positive reviews—Tyson took to Twitter and sent out a series of tweets about the “mysteries” of Gravity. He basically picked apart every aspect of the movie that was not 100% scientifically accurate.

I happened to be on Twitter as these tweets were being posted and sat there with my mouth hanging open in dismay as I scrolled through them.

Many of the people I follow on Twitter are either sci-fi writers or sci-fi fans. My feed was suddenly awash with consternation over Tyson’s tweets.

One published writer I follow was so upset she vowed NEVER to attempt writing sci-fi again.

She’ll probably get over that eventually. But she was typical of the vocal reaction to Tyson’s tweets. Many felt he was denigrating the movie, and others, who either hadn’t seen the movie or saw it and didn’t care for it (no work of fiction is beloved by ALL), applauded him for smacking the movie down.

Tyson was clearly stunned by the reaction his tweets generated, because he took to Facebook the next day to clarify that he loved the movie and was sorry he did not also tweet the many things the movie did right.

Tyson was not the only scientist to pick apart the movie’s accuracy—there were others, including former astronaut  Scott Parazynski, interviewed for the New York Magazine entertainment website, Vulture. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin also did a guest review in The Hollywood Reporter.

One thing you can’t help notice, though, is that while they criticized some of the science in the movie, nearly all, like Tyson, emphasized that they loved it. Most call it the most scientifically-accurate space movie to date.

I also can’t help pointing out that Tyson and some others got one thing about the movie wrong—they called Dr. Ryan Stone, Sandra Bullock’s character, a medical doctor, and assumed she’s a physician, complaining she would not be working on the Hubble.

She’s not a physician. She’s a medical engineer. Not only that, but in real life two astronauts who were a physician and a veterinarian, on different missions, have repaired the Hubble during space walks.

Hey, I’m no scientist or expert on NASA missions, but it only took about 60 seconds of Googling to find that out.

So. Even the experts can be inaccurate now and again.

When it comes to the other items they brought up, I’m going to trust that they are correct and the movie is wrong.

On a couple of issues, it’s easy to see why the movie did not adhere to science completely. For instance, Tyson cited Bullock’s hair not floating in zero gravity. That’s likely because it was not possible to film it that way since they weren’t actually in zero gravity during filming. (I could mention other instances that were inaccurate and guess why director Cuaron went that way, but they’re spoilers.)

Why Cuaron made other choices that were inaccurate, I can’t say for sure, but my gut tells me it’s because it served the story better to tell it that way.

While on the one hand it’s a stunning visual experience (even the scientific naysayers admit it’s the closest most of us will ever get to experiencing what it’s like to be in space) the story is what shines the most in Gravity. On the surface, it’s a survival thriller—disaster strikes, the characters try to survive. But there’s much more going on. It’s also a story about emotional survival, about our small place in a vast universe, about our connection to each other as human beings. There were many moments during the movie where I was in tears, not because of any sappy sentimentality, but because it was such a visceral experience. Cuaron packed a lot in a very short running time (only 91 minutes!) and left me exhausted at the end from the relentless tension. He cleverly eschewed the usual Hollywood trappings (flashbacks, romance, conspiracy theories) and spun a simple yet deeply engrossing tale.

I’m not one of those people who dismisses inaccuracies with the standard “it’s only a movie” excuse. I’m not a science nerd, but I am a bit of a history nerd and sometimes become aggravated by historical fiction that plays fast and loose with facts. But if the changes serve to tell a better story, then the inaccuracies don’t bother me very much.

Cuaron clearly did his research and got much of the science right. But he also made choices that were not accurate, and still made a great movie.

It can be a very fine line, but story trumps accuracy every time.

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