Gravity film review

On Tuesday, 8 October 2013, I went to the Embassy Cinema in Waltham, Mass., to screen Gravity. The space-based drama is the best movie I’ve seen in theaters so far this year.

Gravity film wallpaper
Drama in space

Gravity‘s plot is fairly straightforward — after a major accident, astronaut Ryan Stone is stranded in orbit and must find a safe way back to Earth’s surface. As a well-executed character study and survival thriller, Gravity stands out after a summer of sequels, reboots, apocalypses, and gratuitous urban destruction.

Co-writer and director Alfonso Cuaron (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men) keeps the pacing taut at a lean 90-minute runtime. He successfully balances the wonders of seeing Earth from space (worth a 3-D or IMAX ticket) with a focus on Stone’s emotions. The visual effects around the orbital disaster are excellent, with a convincing mix of live action and computer-generated imagery.

Star Sandra Bullock, who has been better known for physical comedy than for her range, conveys Stone’s reactions to her predicament, from joy to horror to sadness and determination. George Clooney is his usual affable self as Matt Kowalski, an astronaut who initially guides Stone. These actors have enough charisma to fill the screen as needed.

Despite some scientific liberties taken for the sake of storytelling, such as with orbital mechanics and physiological degradation from time spent in microgravity, Gravity feels realistic, if not as much as The Right Stuff or Apollo 13. I’d put this movie with 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon as good speculative fiction. As an SF thriller, it’s also not far fromĀ Alien or Outland.

Overall, I’d give Gravity, which is rated PG-13 for violence and language, a 9 out of 10, four and a half out of five stars, or an A-. I recommend it for any fans of serious science fiction and the aforementioned actors.

Of the previews I saw, the remake of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller looked decent, and I’m of course looking forward to The Hobbit [2 of 3]: the Desolation of Smaug. I was also pleased to see a strong Godzilla trailer recently, but I’m less certain about literary adaptation Ender’s Game and superhero sequel Thor 2: the Dark World.

Sightseeing around the Emerald City

As I’ve already mentioned, Janice and I did what tourists are expected to do in Seattle — visit the Space Needle and Pike Place Market. We did get rained on, but less than expected. There was no shortage of things to see in the city, and we got glimpses through the mist of the green and mountainous Northwest beyond.

Gene in Seattle
Looking out from Seattle

On Sunday, June 23, Janice and I went to historic Pioneer Square. We had a real character as our guide during the Underground Tour, and we also enjoyed browsing at the Magic Mouse toy store and the Seattle Mystery Bookshop. We also checked out the impressive modernist Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library, which was only a block from our hotel.

We walked up to Kobe Terrace Park, but we didn’t fully explore the International District, where many Asian-Americans live. After the harbor cruise the next day, we wandered among the tourist traps of various piers before heading to the Seattle Aquarium. It might be smaller than the New England Aquarium, but it was informative about how humans have both lived off the sea and (belatedly) tried to protect it.

We also saw some fun public sculpture and goats grazing beneath an underpass. As I noted in my blog post about Seattle food, Pike Place Market was great, while Pacific Place and other urban shopping malls cater to the locals and business people. I’ve been asked whether I was interested in visiting the headquarters of Microsoft (or Wizards of the Coast), but that would have been too much like work.

I’m glad that Janice and budgeted most of Tuesday, June 25, to see the Museum of Flight, which is next to Boeing’s sprawling campus. It featured lots of exhibits on the entire history of aircraft, from the Wright brothers through the World Wars and the International Space Station.

We’ve been to the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as well as the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport, and this was as impressive as either of those. Among the aircraft we saw were the P-51 Mustang WWII fighter, the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane, and one of the jets designated as Air Force One through several presidential administrations.

Wednesday, June 26, was the quietest day of our vacation, since we expected heavy rain (which never came). We went to the Seattle Art Museum, which had small but strong collections of ancient through modern art. I didn’t take many photos in the museums because most prohibited the use of a flash. Janice and I also visited some art galleries and shops of First Nations or Native American art such as Northwest Tribal Art.

The next day, Janice and I visited Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. We admired the architecture and meticulous gardens. The Royal B.C. Museum was one of the highlights of our trip, including a recreation of a Western town in which you could enter rooms in each building, ranging from a saloon to a train station to a fancy 19th century hotel.

We also checked out the spectacular dioramas at Miniature World, which is similar to Roadside America in Pennsylvania. I got a new sun hat at the Tilley store, and we viewed nature art at the Robert Bateman Centre before heading back to the clipper to Seattle.

On Friday, June 28, we walked to the Olympic Sculpture Park and Myrtle Edwards Park for a mostly clear view of the Olympic Mountains. We then walked to Seattle Center, spending our last afternoon in town in the same way we had spent our first one — near the iconic Space Needle.

The EMP (Experience Music Project) Museum focuses on popular culture. It was cool to see the artifacts from Jimi Hendrix, local band Nirvana, and the “Women Who Rock” exhibit. Of course, the exhibits on science-fiction icons, fantasy world-building, and classic horror movies were of particular interest.

On a related note, Golden Age Collectibles in Pike Place Market had a wide selection of comic books and games, and I’ve known Seattle for years as the setting for the Shadowrun cyberpunk/fantasy tabletop role-playing game.

At the Pacific Science Center, we saw the usual planetology and paleontology exhibits, as well as the Air Racers IMAX film, which was timely because of our visit to the Museum of Flight.

I did check e-mail periodically during the vacation, but it was nice to get away from the usual routine. I did follow the news, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings on the Voting Rights Act, which I disagreed with, and the Defense of Marriage Act, which I’m glad was struck down, as were people who gathered at the courthouse near our hotel.

In future trips to the Pacific Northwest, Janice and I hope to see more of the great outdoors, First Nations and Asian culture, and maybe other cities, such as Portland and Vancouver. I’d be happy to return to Seattle anytime!

Since then, I’ve been busy catching with work (especially after the latest reorg), gaming, and genre TV. I look forward to seeing friends during the coming weekends.

Top 10 things to do when there’s no game

My role-playing groups have had to deal with several schedule disruptions lately, with the latest coming from Hurricane Sandy.

Specialized random weather generators
Rolling the dice

Still, all is not lost — here are some things to do (in no particular order) when there’s no game:

  1. Enjoy the extra time with family members. Or, hide from them.
  2. Review your Player Character records so they’re up to date.
  3. Follow the news media’s breathless coverage.
  4. Make plans with fellow role-players for what your adventuring parties will do next.
  5. Hope that the government/boss will also give you tomorrow off.
  6. Let the Game Masters know what you’d like your characters to do/see/meet next.
  7. Light some candles, invite the neighbors over, and host a seance or board game night.
  8. Review the rules and recent session updates. Just kidding — that’s for G.M.s — recharge your creative batteries by reading or watching something fun.
  9. Sacrifice canned goods to the storm gods.
  10. Prepare extra evil plans for the next time you run something.

Stay safe!

Our continuing mission…

As some of you may know from my report of this past weekend’s successful steampunk festival, I collect costumes, among other things. As a longtime “Trekker/Trekkie,” I already have the boots, phaser pistol, and gold command tunics for the classic 1960s television series. In addition, I recently ordered a shirt and jacket in the style of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine/Nemesis uniforms. The space opera garb arrived from China less than two weeks after I ordered it.

Star Trek garb
These are the voyages....

The materials and stitching are good, especially for the gray yoke. I’ll have to be careful with the small zippers. I may eventually replace the red mock turtleneck with one of a heavier material and use my metal rank pips and comm badge pin rather than the plastic ones that were Velcroed or sewn on. The jacket’s sleeves are a bit short, and the cuffs are a bit wide, but that’s because of my personal proportions and can be altered by a tailor (paging Elim Garak).

Capt. Tzu Tien Lung
One to beam up!

This costume resembles my image for “Capt. Tzu Tien Lung,” the commander of the U.S.S. Tempest in a homebrew GURPS 3e Space game that Steve M.R. ran in Virginia back in the mid-1990s. Although J.J. Abrams has rebooted the movie franchise and is working on a sequel, as the Star Trek Online MMO and some tabletop campaigns have shown, many fans are interested in continuing the universe of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Sketch of Capt. Tzu
Sketch of Capt. Tzu

While I don’t have a Blu-Ray player, I am curious about the latest remastered episodes of Star Trek. I also hope that we can recover and build on real-world human spaceflight capabilities. Live long and prosper!