The Problem of Geography in Gravity

gravity-movie-trailer-hd-stills-clip-detached-sandra-bullock-39Several weeks ago I read an article claiming Gravity as the first Best Picture lock of the Academy Awards season. The article lauded the film’s realistic handling of an historically campy genre (sci-fi), the two stars (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), and the film’s “bar-raising visuals.” This praise, especially that for the visuals, was echoed elsewhere. NPR proclaimed, “doctoral thesis will be penned on the breath-catchingly realistic, gorgeous [cinematography]” and The New York Times said, flat out, “you have to see it to believe it.” As someone who went to Space Camp as a kid and spent hours recreating Apollo 13 in a pillow-fort-lunar-module (and as someone who’s been let down by Hollywood’s endeavors into outer space over the past decade), I was thrilled at the possibility of a new addition to the space film canon.

And I can say, without question, that the cinematography is jaw-dropping. The opening scene — in which a tiny speck of a space shuttle glides slowly (almost harmlessly) into the foreground, allowing the camera to maneuver and zoom, more first-person than third, towards the two protagonists out on a routine spacewalk — lasts an incredible 13 minutes without a cut. The director, Alfonso Cuarón, and his team spent years inventing new camera and lighting techniques to achieve such immersive, extended takes and the result is a depiction of zero gravity that is among the most thorough and intimate ever committed to film. Unfortunately, groundbreaking cinematography is about all Gravity has going for it. Once you get past the slick camera work, the film is, at heart, little more than a thriller with clunky dialogue, cliche-ridden characters, and trite symbolism. Leaving the theater, I was wholly disappointed that such a promising movie could be brought down by such a redeemable screenplay.

However, one of the movie’s flaws seemed to bother me more than the others — its inattention to geography. Though the movie is relatively brief and fast-paced, the characters take frequent breaks from dodging space debris to marvel at the beauty of Earth as seen from space. George Clooney’s character, in particular, repeatedly offers cocksure assessments of the Earth’s grandeur, though anytime the camera pans Earthward to show us what he’s talking about, we’re left gazing at an ambiguous medley of generic landforms and vague bodies of water. Few and far between are the shots of easily recognizable geomorphology. We clearly see the Nile River Valley at one point (“the cradle of civilization” — again, trite symbolism) and there’s a shot of Italy’s famous boot shape in there, but I had trouble identifying anything else. It got so distracting that I quit following the action at times in hopes of spotting a familiar coastline in the background. I even saw the movie a second time, thinking maybe I’d missed something, but the second viewing left me even more perplexed — I mean, it looked like Earth (blue, green, occasionally cloudy) but where were all the familiar shapes?

Here are three clips that hopefully illustrate some of the film’s fudgy, if not fabricated, geography…

[vimeo w=650&h=309]

This isthmus appears to resemble the Isthmus of Panama though, compared to a map, the similarity is rough at best.

[vimeo w=650&h=309]

This island?

[vimeo w=650&h=309]

This island? (If anyone can identify these landforms, please let me know in the comments!)

I recommend comparing these clips to actual footage of the Earth taken by orbiting space craft (for example, this post). In the real footage, there’s no shortage of recognizable geography. It’s like running your finger across a globe — there’s the excitement of spotting Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta (etc.) and the existential awe of how small we all are. This same wonder is largely absent from Gravity because, despite the mind-blowing cinematography, the Earth they choose to show us, lurking in the background of every shot, providing both the literal and narrative gravity, just isn’t ours.

7 replies
  1. Tommy Tedji says:

    I’ve been observing the movie with a map, and I say It’s pretty accurate. They start in the Caribbean Sea, and Clooney marvels at the view of Panama (Upside down north side down). The similarity is not rough, it is just incredibly distorted because of wide angle of the lens. After the debris, they orbit north east to Florida, east coast Canada, and finally England/Ireland when they meet Explorer again. The trip to the ISS (moving Southeast) is over Italy, the Nile (Obvious), and Arabian peninsula (you can see the dessert and red sea in the sunrise). The second video you show is India and the island is Sri Lanka. They travel south east again to South East Asia where you can see Sumatra (Toba Lake), Thailand, Myanmar, and that’s where Clooney mentioned the beauty of the Ganges (pretty accurate right). Then, they move north east, where there’s a monsoon (very common in the Philippine Sea), aaaaand that’s all I got. (pretty realistic orbit I must say) I have no idea where she lands. Because there’s a long indoor scene so, I can’t keep track of the orbit. From the land forms it might be Denmark or North/South Korea. Hope this helps!

  2. amw says:

    Yes – Tommy is right – well spotted.

    The first land you see in video 1 is actually the western end of Cuba and just to the right of it (in the video) Isla de la Juventud. Then the camera rotates round and you catch the eastern edge of Belize right at the bottom of the picture, and then suddenly the north coast of Honduras is the very green landfall, with the river estuaries of Patuca and Coco (bordering Nicaragua) clearly shown. Then you see the narrowing funnel of Nicaragua and Costa Rica, and then the twisting isthmus of Panama, with finally Colombia widening out beyond that.

    I still can’t get video 3 though!

  3. amw says:

    A bit more searching – the final video clearly shows a sea giving way to a very arid environment with an island offshore – not many places you find that combination – and it turns out to be over the Caspian Sea, crossing into western Kazakhstan (Mangystau province). The island you see with the curled neck on its left, just before you hit the mainland (barely separated from it in fact?) doesn’t seem to be named on any map I can find – no towns, roads or anything.

    The final parachute scene is still hard to localise – if the capsule comes in over Kazakhstan, maybe the Altai Mountains in southern Siberia?

  4. Ellen Metki says:

    I’ve looked into this matter as well. The first video you give, just before the Explorer is pummeled with sat debris (8:30 in my copy of the movie), is rather confusing but if you follow with a map it makes sense. You are first looking at Cuba upside down (and really distorted by the curvature) with Florida under it, and then panning to the right we next see the Yucatan, then the hump of Honduras and Nicaragua, and then Panama with a bit of Columbia at the edge. Because of the disorienting angles and curvature distortions, its not easily recognizable. You can clearly see Cuba a few moments later when the Explorer gets hit.

    The island at 30:43 is definitely Sri Lanka, and you can also see the subcontinent of India in the same sequence. Ryan then enters the airlock of the ISS (37:25) over Sumatra overlooking Thailand. The cyclone seen at 42:25 is in the South China Sea off Vietnam. The orbit at this point is moving northeast. When Ryan undocks the Soyuz from the ISS at 46:21, it is directly over the strait between Taiwan and China (Fujian provence). Then when Ryan struggles to break free from the parachute tethering her to the ISS, you can see parts of Honshu (Japan) off in the distance. When chunks of the debris pierce through the solar panels on the ISS at 51:47 as Ryan is unbolting the tethers, you can clearly see the island of Hokkaido (Japan) underneath, and then seconds later at 51:56 portions of North Korea are visible. The ISS breaks up over Japan; at 53:11, overlooking Ryan’s shoulder, you can see South Korea and the Yellow Sea.

    The breakup of the ISS seems to alter the Soyuz’ orbit (probably at the moment of the explosion), with the ISS debris floating away from Ryan’s POV but with the Soyuz now headed to the arctic. At 54:26, when Ryan manouvers the Soyuz to align with Tiangong, the Bering Strait can be seen in the distance. The Soyuz is then seen over the arctic regions of Canada in 55:50 and then near Baffin Island in 56:44 (when the sun sets). Aurora borealis is visible over Greenland, and this is when Ryan has the radio conversation with the Inuit Anigaaq. When the reentry capsule is detached from the rest of Soyuz in 1:08:13, Ryan is somewhere over the North Sea; the reflection of the moon on the water brilliantly illuminates the distinctive outline of the Netherlands. After the thrusters are fired, the capsule changes course and passes over Denmark (1:10:23) to rendezvous with Tiangong. At 1:10:35, Ryan peers through the window and sees the Baltic Sea in the distance (with portions of Lithuania and Poland prominent) as Tiangong approaches; presumably she is over Slovakia at this point. She exits the Soyuz capsule over, I believe, Serbia at 1:11:12, Bulgaria is visible just to the east and the western half of the Black Sea beyond it. We see the sunrise occur at 1:11:15, as Ryan struggles to reach Tiangong with the fire extinguisher, and the view below is clearly that of Turkey and the eastern portion of the Black Sea. That is the last geographical locale I can recognize with confidence. Tiangong is headed eastward a little to the north, so one could guess that Ryan boards the Chinese station somewhere over central Asia, perhaps Azerbaijan or Iran.

    This is where it gets really muddled. It is unclear where Ryan re-enters the atmosphere and lands. It is heavily implied that Ryan lands in the United States. When we get a look at the countdown screen in the Shenzhou at 1:15:33, there is a graphic at the top showing an orbit with current location (in red) indicated as over California or Nevada. But the orbit corresponds to nothing we have already seen (it passes through Africa, Madagascar, and Indonesia…nowhere as far north as the Black Sea). And then once Ryan lands, we have radio transmissions from mission control, and a presumably local radio station playing country-western music and the word “midwest” is also heard. Mission control also tells Shenzhou-in-the-blind that a rescue party has already been dispatched, which again suggests that Ryan landed somewhere in the USA. But is there really enough time for the Shenzhou to go halfway around the world from the Black Sea to the United States, passing over the Pacific Ocean? At 1:14:16 Tiangong passes over a large expanse of water with land, which is inexplicable for central Asia, and then at 1:14:54 we see a large bay or sea with several islands and peninsulas; the shape is somewhat close to Papua New Guinea, but not close enough. None of the other shorelines or landforms are also recognizable.

    There is a theory that Ryan never made it back to earth, but died in the airlock from hypoxia — the rest of the movie being a hallucination, wish fulfillment, or the ‘journey of her soul.’ Perhaps that might explain the unfamiliar landscapes (being imagined by Ryan) and the unrealistic speed at which the Shenzhou returned to earth zipping halfway across the globe (when one would think the capsule was slowing down due to friction), so she could return ‘home’. Is it a coincidence that she was from Lake Zurich, Illinois, and she lands down into a lake in the “midwest” (from the radio chatter)? The lake itself looks more like something from the West (where it was filmed), but still, it is curious. And the unrealistic speed does seem to start after Ryan “recovers” in the airlock; her journey from eastern Europe to the Black Sea after the rocket burn takes places seemingly in seconds (as she counts down the seconds in that scene). Who knows though whether that was intentional.

  5. Josh says:

    I was distracted by the geography too. I can usually identify islands in satellite pictures, and “Gravityisland2” should be obvious, but I can’t find it, and I’m wondering if it is fake. (The picture at the top of the post, as you probably know, is Cuba.)

  6. Josh says:

    AMW is right about the final island being in the Caspian — I missed it because the Google Maps view shows the island pretty much part of the mainland. The Bing Maps version is clearer. The lake splashdown seemed to be in a body of water with a little island. It could be something like Nurek Reservoir, Tajikistan (though of course the actual on-the-ground shooting was in the western US).


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