On Aug. 25, I noticed a smattering of social-media elegies for Neil Armstrong. Mournful moonwalk jokes. Heartfelt hashtags. The only problem was that Armstrong has already been dead a year. Posts commemorating the first anniversary of his passing had been misconstrued as breaking news. This cultural blind spot brought to mind Tom Wolfe’s biting New York Times editorial “One Giant Leap to Nowhere” from 2009, in which he lamented NASA’s diminished status in our daily lives: “If anyone had told me in July 1969 that the sound of Neil Armstrong’s small step plus mankind’s big one was the shuffle of pallbearers at graveside, I would have averted my eyes and shaken my head in pity. Poor guy’s bucket’s got a hole in it.” House Republicans seem eager to let that bucket continue to drain, having barely mentioned the defunding of NASA among the casualties of their government shutdown.
I don’t believe all Americans are completely disengaged from the space program, but we’ve clearly reached a point where the next giant leap most readers are likely to take is checking out a frog photobombing a NASA launch. (That picture is nuts.) Before taking a licking, Kepler, NASA’s planet-hunting spacecraft, discovered potentially habitable planets in the “Goldilocks” zone, and yet somehow a report on floating clouds of dead skin trapped inside the International Space Station is just as mesmerizing. And as new data pours in from Mars—or at least did before the Curiosity rover was furloughed—are we more concerned that Curiosity has failed to find methane (indicating no signs of life), succeeded in finding traces of water (possible life?), or that one of its flight directors has a photogenic Mohawk? Maybe it’s us who need lives.
The state of serious sci-fi cinema has lately been just as suspect. We’ve drifted far from H.G. Wells, HAL-9000, and John Glenn swatting fireflies in The Right Stuff. Where are the heavyweight productions that awaken audiences to the infinite possibilities of space? One where special effects hit our subconscious, not just our wallets for premium tickets?
After a considerable drought, the gifted director Alfonso Cuarón, reunited with Emmanuel Lubezki, arguably the best cinematographer at work anywhere in the world today, has finally provided audiences with a complex character study disguised as a traditional shipwreck thriller. Gravity hits theaters this week, riding a comet tail of critical praise and festival raves. James Cameron declared it the “best space film ever done” and commended its human dimension and technical mastery in equal measure. The film opens with a stunning, unbroken shot of a routine spacewalk—or extra-vehicular activity (EVA)—before a swarm of debris cuts everything in its path to ribbons. To make matters worse, because our protagonists are trapped in orbit, the swarm is constantly coming back around the bend—a sunrise with teeth. I won’t spoil any plot points here, but needless to say, the special effects and performances are sensational, and the pace is relentless.
Storytellers have been fascinated with what could go wrong in space long before mankind had the technology to even leave the atmosphere, and we’ve arrived at a moment where cinematic tools have finally caught up to our imaginations. What Cuarón offers is a sense of grace and psychological depth that makes him, in my view, the first 21st century commercial filmmaker to stand alongside the visionaries of the printed word like Stanislaw Lem or Ray Bradbury. The moment the Gravity teaser trailer splashed across the Internet, several commenters were reminded of the classic Bradbury short story “Kaleidoscope,” published in 1949, in which a rocket splits apart and the crewmates scatter into the dark sea like a “dozen wriggling silverfish” until the poetic climax of the story, when a small farm boy in Illinois mistakes one of the bodies re-entering the atmosphere for a falling star.
While Bradbury contemplated the boundless terror of spiraling helplessly through the darkness, few films have been able to truly enter the minds of those in peril. Before Gravity eclipsed it, Europa Report, an ambitious “found footage” film released earlier this year, was perhaps as close as it got. An astronaut whose suit is contaminated during a spacewalk is forbidden re-entry and must abandon ship, using the extra me-time to sign off to his crew and family back on Earth. The camera affixed inside his helmet catches his final gasps in a serious case of personal-space invasion. The scene feels eerily authentic, thanks to the performance of Sharlto Copley, last seen 3-D–printing his own face in Elysium.
The beleaguered protagonists in Gravity occasionally use humor as a coping mechanism—a wise choice by Cuarón, to provide the exhausted audience a few scavenged moments to recalibrate. The tactic is wielded most expertly by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), whose cowboy bravado and occasional zingers help calm his less qualified compatriot, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), through the madness. During these pockets of levity, I was reminded of the strain of dark humor that courses through other depictions of space tragedies. In Dark Star, for example, John Carpenter played a deadly spacewalk for laughs, when the stranded (and aptly named) Lt. Doolittle surfs a hunk of space debris to the tune of “Benson, Arizona” before being bug-zapped by a mystery planet’s atmosphere. Other times, the laughter is unintentional, as with the cosmically corny Destination Moon (1950) and its whiz-bang dialogue. “Wow!” says an upturned spacewalker, gazing down at Earth. “Geography books are right!”
Clooney’s Kowalski may also have the most refined reality-distortion field ever depicted in cinema. If the sight of the International Space Station suffering more dents than the shark tank in Jaws doesn’t faze you, nothing will. But is it possible this sense of calm and composure has shades of truth, and isn’t simply a caricature?
To find out more about the mentality of spacewalkers, I arranged to meet with retired NASA astronaut Story Musgrave, a veteran of six spaceflights and a designer of the spacesuits and life support systems used on spacewalks. Musgrave was a spacewalker on Challenger’s maiden voyage, as well as the first mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. A Florida resident and proud Kentuckian, he spends a week each month at Applied Minds, a research facility known as the “little Big Idea company,” located in the industrial outskirts of Glendale, Calif.