Here’s something that was never commented upon in all the praise (all of it justified) for Alfonso Cuaron’s 2013 film Gravity. Who – really – is mission specialist Ryan Stone, as played by Sandra Bullock?
Early on before the trouble starts, mission specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is fitting a new project onto the Hubble space telescope. It’s a data motherboard she has to insert into the memory slot, slide into place and boot up.
Problem is, Houston’s not getting any reading from it, so she suggests an hour to reconfigure it. While she does so, suave mission commander Mike Kowalski (George Clooney) swings down in his EVA jetpack to chat her up. Among his cool as ice, very Clooney-esque charmers; ‘they don’t bankroll prototypes, not even for your pretty blue eyes.’
Minutes later, mission control in Houston (the voice of Ed Harris) gets on the horn to tell the nearby ISS crew and the Explorer crew – which Stone and Kowalski are working from – to drop what they’re doing and get the hell out of Dodge.
The Russian government has destroyed a decommissioned satellite with a missile strike, and even though NASA telemetry originally thought the debris field would orbit far beneath the ISS and STS, it’s now hit more vehicles, which have hit more in turn, and the cloud of shrapnel (travelling the speed of a bullet) has reached higher altitudes, both missions right in its path.
Now here’s the thing. The Cold War’s long over, but relations between the US and Russia have been frosty plenty of times since, as they were around the time Gravity was made and released.
Kowalski claims they don’t bankroll prototypes, but here Stone is installing one. Either they do bankroll prototypes, or she’s just not telling. And as mission commander, wouldn’t Kowalski know what tasks were being carried out during his mission?
Then, at the same time as Stone is installing something that’s either top secret or experimental (which Kowalski’s just informed us NASA doesn’t do), Russia fires a missile at one of its own satellites, something that’s very difficult and expensive to do for any space-going nation, especially if the vehicle being targeted has been scrapped.
The usual method for disposing of orbiting vehicles when they’re out of service is to use the last of their fuel to put them on a path that will see them burn up in the atmosphere or – if any debris comes through – fall harmlessly in the ocean.
Coincidence? Or is Ryan Stone more than just a doctor? Is she CIA, put in space to destroy an orbiter that might give Russia a military advantage, her ‘prototype’ really a weapon that took out the Russian satellite?
Or maybe she’s a Russian spy, groomed for years to enter the US space program, sent into space with a bogus mission just to assure the Explorer will lie in the path of the cloud of destruction. Did Stone – really Major Ryaneski Stonaslavski – have a plan to escape before the debris hit, one she ran out of time to enact?
Or did she never intend to leave the shuttle, ready to sacrifice her life for the cause? When she survived and found herself drifting helplessly in space, might she have realised that if she kept up the pretense of being Dr Ryan Stone of Lake Zurich, Illinois, NASA and Kowalski – still wearing his jetpack and searching in the darkness for her – would save her life?
Think about that.