The Truthiness Of GRAVITY

Why did Neil deGrasse Tyson's scientific critiques of the hit film piss so many people off?

How could you not love Neil deGrasse Tyson? The famed astrophysicist is funny and smart and impossibly smooth, and he’s dedicated to making science cool again. He’s one of my heroes, and I love following his Twitter, where he drops lots of science knowledge, often with a wry sense of fun. But yesterday Tyson made a bigger mistake than setting his controls for the heart of the sun: he made some criticisms of Gravity. Alfonso Cuaron’s movie has become the latest film to be defended with the fervor of zealots, and so Tyson’s science fact checking provoked a ton of criticism in the moment and a whole bunch of articles this morning.

Here are his tweets:

What I found fascinating was that the response was largely ‘It’s only a movie!’, which was very different from the Twitter conversation I had been seeing since release, much of which focused on the seeming realism of the film, which includes (mostly) silence in space. In fact that seeming realism had been a big selling point for the movie, with Cuaron talking it up in a lot of interviews, including one I did with him.

That, I think, is why people got mad at Tyson - he was deflating the film’s truthiness. You’ll recognize that word as being coined by Stephen Colbert, which the American Dialect Society defines as "the quality of preferring concepts or facts one wishes to be true, rather than concepts or facts known to be true.”

Most movies - even documentaries - are truthy. It’s more important that what happens in a movie FEEL real than it actually BE real. Realism would have utterly destroyed Gravity, if only because the movie keeps piling catastrophe upon catastrophe on Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone. But that’s not what Tyson is focusing on - he’s focusing on the little details that wouldn’t get in the way of drama (with a touch of snark along the way, a hallmark of internet discourse).

Those little details are what make the film feel real. Cuaron has said he wanted people to feel like they were in space, and he has accomplished that. That feeling also makes the audience feel smart; this is a ‘realistic’ movie, not a space fantasy, and it’s based on science and other smart things. ‘I’m smart for appreciating that,’ is the subtext to some of our enjoyment of the movie.

And along comes Neil deGrasse Tyson, proving otherwise.

Some of his nitpicks are actually pretty major; the thing about the ISS and the Hubble being nowhere each other is HUGE. As noted in an excellent New York Times article about this, having the astronauts travel from the orbit of the Hubble to the ISS would be “like having a pirate tossed overboard in the Caribbean swim to London.” The difference is that you and I instinctively know those distances are impossible on Earth, but we have less understanding of how impossible they are in space.

I imagine that Cuaron knew this; as the Times article points out the distance from the ISS to the Hubble was actually a major sticking point in shuttle mission funding after the Columbia disaster. Cuaron likely fudged this because he knew audiences would recognize Hubble as a real thing, and that would give the story the frisson of reality.

In other words, he was striving for truthiness.

That doesn’t make the error any less egregious. If we’re going to feel smart for appreciating the fact that Cuaron (mostly) doesn’t use sound in space, we should also be able to understand why these other details matter. They don’t matter when deciding if the movie is good or bad as art, but they matter when we’re talking about the perceived realism of the piece - which is a totally different conversation than the one about whether Gravity is a good moviegoing experience.

It’s great that Gravity gets space more correct than most other movies, but that doesn’t mean we have to roll over and forget that science still exists. The great part about being smart and human is that you can hold an appreciation for the film and what it gets right while also holding an appreciation of the larger true scientific principles that make space travel so difficult and amazing. This isn’t a sports game - you don’t have to stand behind your team at all costs. Gravity can be both great and scientifically unsound. Neither cancels the other out.

And in the end, Tyson liked the movie. His last tweet on the matter:

But here’s one nitpick he didn’t make: the most fantastical thing in Gravity is that it takes place about 20 shuttle missions after the final one. It presents a world where the United States is still invested in the space program. Sadly there’s no truthiness in that at all.