Commentary | ‘Gravity’: It’s All About the Buzz

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On Oct. 6, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted 12 messages regarding the blockbuster movie “Gravity.” My guess is he did so right after seeing the movie. Those tweets — or his “rant,” as one reporter called it — were legitimately harsh on the technical aspects of the movie. OK, seeing the movie, even I, a policy wonk, understood that orbital dynamics got lost in rewrites. But Tyson, to quote another movie line, this one from Lex Luthor (played by Kevin Spacey) to Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in “Superman Returns”: “You’re not seeing the big picture!”

Tyson, himself the closest thing space has to a rockstar, ought to understand that any publicity is good, and “Gravity” is generating lots of buzz about space, something that hasn’t happened in a long time. Tyson pointed out in one of his blasts to his 1,477,954 Twitter followers: “Mysteries of #Gravity: Why we enjoy a SciFi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space.” If people are talking more about space today than they were before the movie came out, I say bravo “Gravity” ­­­— it has succeeded where others have failed. The attention the movie brings to space could do more toward engendering public support to send actual people to space than others, including NASA, have recently achieved.

Nobody is going to learn astrophysics from a movie. Few people are going to learn astrophysics period. But if they are asking questions about what is real and what is not, that’s a big step forward.  

In my not-infrequent talks on space to audiences from Kiwanis Clubs in North Carolina, to the Maine Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations, to the English-Speaking Union in South Carolina, I always have to begin by addressing one key point: why space is important to them. The services that space assets provide, like GPS and communications, have become global utilities that people assume will be available, often not even knowing from where. So a little education on why protecting space assets is in their best interests is necessary. Once the many ways we rely on space are pointed out, audiences generally buy in. After making that point, I then usually move on to “why it’s a good idea not to blow things up in space” and explain the Kessler Effect, which could occur from debris hitting one object and setting off a chain reaction. That task will be much easier in the future if audience members have seen “Gravity.” 

Movies are not bound by the laws of physics or even reality. After seeing the 2010 Leonardo DiCaprio movie “Inception,” I ran into a colleague in the theater lobby. I asked him what he thought, and he said he found it “a bit unrealistic.” Really? What was he expecting, a documentary? Movie makers take license with science and reality to provide the escapism that moviegoers are looking for. That should be no surprise to anyone.

Bruce Willis’ 1998 movie “Armageddon” also suffered from technical issues. In fact, I was one of several people asked to participate in a subsequent Disney/ABC television show, “Armageddon: Target Earth,” to simultaneously promote the movie and differentiate fact from fiction. I’m sure viewers who tuned in largely to hear Mr. Spock’s — Leonard Nimoy’s — narration, learned more about space from that 30-minute show than they had in high school, simply by virtue of exposure. 

I happened to see the 1995 movie “Apollo 13” with a group of space enthusiasts from the International Space University who nit-picked every technical flaw. But most audiences focused on the heroic nature of the astronauts. That’s the kind of emotion that can generate public support for space travel.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who certainly seems to recognize the importance of publicity, pointed out the value of movies to space earlier this year in a Senate hearing on the threat to Earth from asteroids, after an asteroid exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia. “I was disappointed that Bruce Willis was not available to be a fifth witness on the panel,” he joked. Then he added: “There probably is no doubt that actually Hollywood has done more to focus attention on this issue than perhaps a thousand congressional hearings could do.” 

The week of Oct. 6 was a banner week for space education via media. The always popular television show “60 Minutes” included a feature on the threat to Earth from asteroids. The parts that seemed to stick with the admittedly small and nonscientific sample of people I have subsequently polled through friends and students in classes at the Naval War College and the Harvard Extension School are that NASA learned about the Chelyabinsk incident through Twitter, and that in order to effectively deflect an asteroid, we would have to know about it many — 20 or 30 — years in advance. The former is interesting, the latter important.

The Obama administration has proposed an asteroid mission to learn more about asteroids and as a steppingstone to beyond low Earth orbit, a mission that has been gridlocked by naysayers. Some opponents object on technical grounds, others because of what appears to be a case of terminal lunar nostalgia, objecting to any mission that doesn’t return Americas to the lunar surface. Either way, public apathy allowed the political bickering, resulting in little being done to visibly get America and Americans back on track with a plan for space. If “Gravity” moves that public apathy in any direction, I’m all for it, even if Sandra Bullock’s hair did not float freely on her head in zero gravity, as Tyson pointed out.

“Gravity” netted $55.6 million on its opening weekend, the biggest October movie opening ever. If that tells Hollywood there is a market, and consequently it starts focusing on space movies rather than zombie movies, all the better. In one of his tweets, even Tyson admitted he enjoyed the movie, apparently even with all its technical flaws. Space is, for the first time in a long time, a water cooler topic due to “Gravity.”  

Just to finish, as I started, with a movie quote, here are a couple from 1983’s “The Right Stuff”:

Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) to engineers: “You know what makes this bird go up? Funding makes this bird go up.”

Gus Grissom (Fred Ward): “He’s right! No bucks, no Buck Rogers!”

But maybe the more box office buzz there is, the higher the likelihood of Buck Rogers. That’s the big picture.


Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.