6 Documentaries to Watch After ‘Gravity’

By  · Published on October 5th, 2013

“This is not a documentary,” Alfonso Cuaron said of his new movie Gravity to CollectSpace.com. No kidding. Nobody in a documentary talks the way George Clooney and Sandra Bullock do in this spectacular yet sometimes silly space-set thriller. But I’d love for it to be a gateway to some great documentaries about astronauts and NASA missions and the like, so I’ve compiled a list of favorites that are relevant to the plot.

Sure, I could have opened this week’s Movies to Watch list to fiction films, too, but there is less need for me to highlight obvious movies like Apollo 13 and Space Buddies. Also, I’d like to use this opportunity to give a shout out to Dan Schindel’s Doc Option column over at our sister site Nonfics. This week he chose to recommend two true stories for your listening pleasure that relate to Gravity because they involve spacewalks gone wrong. Since he (cleverly) didn’t go with one of the docs I’d have picked, now I get to list them all below.

Hubble 3D

At the start of Gravity, Bullock’s scientist character, a NASA newbie, is making a repair on the Hubble Space Telescope. To see what a real Hubble fix looked like, join the very professional crew of the Atlantis on a 2009 servicing mission, courtesy of IMAX. Directed by Toni Myers, the queen of large-format space documentaries (initially as a writer and editor), and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, the 40min. film chronicles the trip from launch through the final upgrades performed on the HST. One of the astronauts in the film is Michael Massimino, whose experience makes up one of the audio clips featured at Nonfics and who has been in the entertainment news this week for his positive reaction to seeing Cuaron’s movie. He even told Renn Brown at CHUD.com that he thinks Clooney based his character on him. You can actually still catch this one in IMAX 3D at places like the Virginia Air & Space Museum and the Museum of Discovery and Science in Ft. Lauderdale. Or:

Available on Amazon Instant

Space Station 3D

Next stop in Gravity is the International Space Station, so let’s go back a few years to Myers’ first time at the helm of an IMAX documentary (her directorial debut was a fictional work for the company). This one is narrated by Tom Cruise and introduces audiences to the ISS as it’s being assembled over a few years and numerous missions. No crazy fire in zero gravity to be found here, but there is some neat floating spectacle to be enjoyed if you do see this one in 3D. This was actually the first film to be shot on IMAX 3D cameras in space, by the way. And here’s another bit of trivia: Space Station 3D is the highest-grossing movie never to feature in the box office top ten – the domestic tally as of two weeks ago was $88.8m. Of course, it’s been in theaters for more than a decade. You can currently find it at the California Science Center in L.A. Or get your hands on the 3D Blu-ray.

Space Tourists

Sticking with the ISS, this documentary from Oscar nominee Christian Frei (War Photographer) follows a few intercut and interconnected stories, two of which seem relevant to Gravity. The first is a trip to the space station along with billionaire Anousheh Ansari, who paid an estimated $20m dollars to become the first Iranian in space as a “private spaceflight participant.” Wee see her prepare at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, and then accompany a regular mission in a Soyuz (the Russian spacecraft Bullock’s character pilots from the ISS to the Chinese space station) from its launch in Kazakhstan. Then, of course, we’re basically watching a home movie of her very expensive vacation, and Ansari provides us with a laymen’s tour of her orbiting resort. Meanwhile, Frei also shows us Kazakh farmers and scavengers who salvage fallen pieces of the rockets dumped from Soyuz launches. Sometimes this space junk falls in populated areas, damaging barns, which is almost akin to the space junk in Gravity that damages a whole shuttle, the HST, a Soyuz and the ISS.

Available on Amazon Instant

Man on a Mission: Richard Garriott’s Road to the Stars

Not only are we still sticking with the ISS, we’re sticking with private spaceflight. Never mind its official title, I have designated this SXSW Audience Award winner “Space Tourists Too,” because it’s about a similar experience to what we see in the above film, taking place two year later (and featuring a cameo from Ansari). The subject here is Austin-based video game developer Richard Garriott, who with his trip to the ISS became the first second-generation American in space, following in the footsteps of his NASA astronaut father, Owen K. Garriott. As a follower of or compliment to Space Tourists, there is some repeat with this far more conventional doc, but I also think it’s a more accessible and intimate take on the material. I’m still hoping there’s one more film to complete the trilogy. Someone’s going to document Sarah Brighman’s 2015 spaceflight, right?

Available on Netflix Instant

Space Hero: China’s First Man in Space

From the ISS, Bullock’s character pilots – and then fire extinguishes? – herself to the Chinese space station. Wait, there’s a Chinese space station? Not exactly, but there’s one in the making and it’s expected to be completed by 2020. Right now, there is at least a preliminary component, the Tiangong 1 space lab. The fact that you weren’t sure about the one in Gravity means you could use a history lesson on China’s space program. There’s a bit to be found in this 50-minute English-language adaptation of a CCTV documentary on the first Chinese man in space, Yang Liwei, in 2003. They were late to the game, but they’re moving ahead relatively quickly. Still, we have to wait a bit longer for the doc about their station. You can watch it in full here:

When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions

When Bullock’s character makes it to Earth, she lands in a body of water and her craft begins to sink. And she starts to go down with it. The scene reminded me of Gus Grissom’s famed hatch incident suffered upon landing the Liberty Bell 7 in 1961, when he nearly drowned when first the craft then his suit filled with water. Maybe you’ve seen it depicted with Fred Ward as Grissom in The Right Stuff. For the real thing, excluding what was going on inside the craft, there’s various sorts of archival footage to be found. The best is probably the color film included in this Gary Sinise-narrated mini-series, the whole of which is a necessity. Watch the intense segment involving Grissom’s accident from the first episode, “Ordinary Superman,” below.

Full mini-series available on Netflix Instant and Amazon Instant

Now, remember to check out Film School Rejects’ new documentary-focused sister site, Nonfics.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.