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Law Review: Gravity

Submitted by on October 10 – 2013No Comment

In space, no one can hear you claim negligent homicide.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity is the story of an extra-vehicular activity (or EVA) by a NASA space shuttle crew.  It’s the sort of astounding feat of human ingenuity that the public came to regard as routine by the 1990s.  In our universe, NASA can pride itself on never losing an astronaut during an EVA.  But in Cuarón’s film… well, we’re not going to spoil it for you.

Gravity’s photography is stunning, and it is best viewed in 3D on an IMAX screen.  The film relies so heavily on computer-generated imagery that it could be categorized as an animated motion picture, but the seams never show on the special effects.  Amidst the breathtaking vistas, dazzling sunbeams, and spectacularly disintegrating spacecraft, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts in a desperate struggle to survive.  Ed Harris, who has now performed in the three best movies ever made about NASA, provides the voice from Mission Control in Houston.

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Although the story, which Cuarón wrote with his son Jonás, involves a series of panic-inducing mishaps, Bullock and Clooney give admirably understated performances.  Astronauts are not partial to hysterics.  They can’t spare the oxygen.  For Bullock’s character, Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, the challenge is as much about controlling her emotions and her body’s reaction to them as it is about wrestling with failing space equipment.  A lesser actor would play the part as an automaton or a raving mess.  Bullock splits the difference and nails it.  Clooney plays Mission Commander Matt Kowalski, the charismatic veteran to Bullock’s untested rookie.  Kowalski is essentially the same character Clooney has played a dozen times.  Like Harrison Ford, he is from the “let’s pretend” school of acting, and once again it works.

The camera’s eye drifts lazily around both characters, framing their tiny, clumsy efforts to save themselves in the staggering context of infinite space.  Their tinny radio calls seem especially frail in the grand silence of Low Earth Orbit, where the lack of atmosphere prevents sound from carrying.  In that vacuum, you can’t hear anything when your ride home explodes and leaves you stranded in the dark, with a new appreciation for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Outer space may not have most of the conditions necessary for life, but is it also devoid of law?  Put another way, could you claim a cause of action against somebody (we won’t spoil the movie’s actual culprit, so let’s just call him “Vladimir Putin”) who recklessly sends thousands of deadly metal bits hurtling toward your manned spacecraft?

Until the Federation gets its act together, there probably won’t be any law in space for a while.  But plenty of laws on Earth apply to activity in space.  These include the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which is the founding document of international space law, and the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, which would be of particular interest to astronauts Stone and Kowalski.  Other laws and treaties may apply to space debris—the neglected or destroyed pieces of space equipment that orbit our planet at speeds up to 30,000 kilometers per hour.  A 1971 treaty known as the “Liability Convention” allows its party nations, including the United States, Russia, and China, to bring claims against each other when a space object belonging to one harms the space objects of another.  If Mission Specialist Stone could get her radio working again, she might cite this treaty while asking someone in Houston to make a claim against Mr. Putin for the damages to her spacecraft.

Then again, as Luke Punnakanta pointed out in the Southern California Law Review in 2012, some commentators doubt whether the Liability Convention’s description of “space objects” applies to space debris, which consists mostly of little pieces of spacecraft.  Perhaps the treaty only applies to fender-benders between fully intact rocket ships.  Since no legal claim has yet arisen from a space object collision, the controversy persists.

In the mean time, the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space has published guidelines encouraging all spacefaring nations to reduce their pollution of the orbital plane.  The Swiss government has begun developing a fleet of “janitor satellites,” which will hopefully clean up space by gathering bits of debris and bringing them on suicidal plunges into the flames of atmospheric reentry.  Before people and equipment move into the atmosphere in significantly higher numbers, spacefarers will have to come up with better solutions to the debris problem.  Until then, astronauts Stone and Kowalski had better keep their heads on a swivel.

Gravity is rated “PG-13” for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.  It is ninety minutes long.  It will probably appeal to fans of realistic space films like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff.

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