(Corrects movie plot detail in fourth paragraph.)
'Gravity,' the new space-thriller starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, lives up, IMHO, to its, um, stellar reviews. It’s gripping. It’s beautiful. It takes pains to get some of the science right. In short, it’s the kind of movie that Hollywood needs more of to pack people into theaters and keep them paying $5 for 50 cents worth of popcorn.
And especially Chinese viewers, who comprise an increasingly important segment of Hollywood’s audience. (China is the second biggest movie market after the U.S.) In fact, for all the brilliance of ‘Gravity,’ am I the only one who thinks some all-too-scrutable kowtowing went on when Alfonso Cuaron and his son were writing the script?
Let’s start with the movie’s dramatic trigger (forgive my spoilers and go see ‘Gravity’ anyway): Russia tests an anti-satellite weapon on an old satellite, creating a debris field that will probably net Bullock a Best Actress nomination. Wait a minute -- Russia? China is the most recent country to leave a big mess in outer space. In 2007, it conducted a controversial test of an anti-satellite weapon on an old Chinese weather satellite in upper low-earth orbit -- an explosion that created more than 3,000 new pieces of space debris that will threaten space assets for the next 20 years. (The U.S. and Russia stopped kinetic tests in the 1980s; in 2008, however, the U.S.did destroy a spy satellite that was falling back to Earth, but it was targeted at an altitude that caused its fragments to burn up as they entered the atmosphere.) China has continued to test its antisatellite missiles -- this year, in fact -- though it has not blown up anything.
Later in the movie, when Bullock's character seeks refuge in China’s space station, the filmmakers give it a bit of an upgrade. At the moment, with 15 cubic meters of pressurized space, the Tiangong-1 is a far cry from its name (“Heavenly Palace”) or even the multi-module facility that Bullock visits. But hey, in real life at least the Chinese have offered to let foreigners visit, which is more than we’ve done for Chinese astronauts, who aren’t allowed on the International Space Station. (“Nice technology you got here. Mind if we take a closer look?”) And how does Bullock attempt to get back down to Earth? Not on some clunky Russian Soyuz capsule that's run out of fuel (message to Vlad: if you want good product placements, Russians need to buy a lot more tickets to U.S. movies). Instead, she's in a spunky Chinese space capsule of course.
I don’t think Hollywood leaves choices like this to the screenwriter’s imagination, especially in a movie that includes two of its more expensive, and more bankable, stars. And after decades of Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Dr. No and the like, it’s good to move away from ugly Asian stereotypes and have American movies cater more to foreign audiences. Still, with Chinese box office revenues growing by 36 percent last year, look for the sensibilities of the Celestial Kingdom to loom ever larger at your local cineplex.
(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)