‘Gravity’ is Not Sci-Fi

By  · Published on September 29th, 2013

With less than a week left before Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity hits theaters, you’re likely to see an increase in the already heaping mound of raves claiming it’s the best original sci-fi film of the year, if not years. The problem is that this is not sci-fi. I’ve been having minor debate about this for weeks now, and there are numerous critics and non-critics, both people who have seen and haven’t seen the film yet, on each of the two sides of this argument. At the end of the day, you can say I’m being too stubbornly semantical. That the genre doesn’t even matter these days. But this is a movie involving science, and science itself deals a lot in classification and semantics, so I feel it perfectly appropriate to stand firm on genre categorization with this one. And I keep cringing every time I see the term sci-fi or words science fiction applied to this film.

Gravity features no aliens, no interstellar space travel, no time travel, and it doesn’t take place in the future. In fact, given that it involves a space shuttle as its method of travel into space, it would seem to be set in a past. And while I don’t know all the technological accuracy evident on screen, I do know the production aimed for this to be a realistic film of the world and science that is or was existing. To me, that’s not sci-fi. Just like Apollo 13 and The Right Stuff, never mind their being based on history, are not sci-fi. Just like Space Cowboys isn’t sci-fi. Just like Space Camp wouldn’t be sci-fi were it not for that pesky robot. They’re simply dramas about real or plausible space travels.

The full Merriam-Webster definition of science fiction: “fiction dealing principally with the impact of actual or imagined science on society or individuals or having a scientific factor as an essential orienting component.” I like their shorter version of the definition better, which leaves out the “actual” part. Doesn’t the impact of “actual science” on characters include a lot more than what we consider sci-fi? Is Contagion sci-fi? Is The Trigger Effect? Is Bringing Up Baby? There’s really not much science affecting Sandra Bullock and George Clooney in Gravity anymore than science affects the plane crash and subsequent events in Cast Away. Gravity is basically a more thrilling, more spectacular, more effects-driven version of Tom Hanks being stranded on an island by himself. Too bad it’s not sci-fi, since “so-and-so-title IN SPACE” typically is sci-fi.

The real genre for Gravity is thriller. It’s a thriller in outer space. And it’s the most thrilling movie in years. It’s also the scariest movie I’ve seen in longer than that. Is it horror? I guess we could call it that. It’s accident horror, not too different from the disasters in the Final Destination movies. There’s even some Final-D-esque gore at one point. While it’s probably even less plausible for any of us than a serial killer slashing us in the woods, it’s hard for us not to put ourselves in the characters as they’re experiencing what seems to be the most terrifying real scenario of all time. Many of us felt like we were going to have heart attacks while watching. Why not put that on a poster or commercial rather than “the best sci-fi in years”? Mainstream audiences don’t care about “sci-fi” anyway. But they’d go see “the scariest movie I’ve seen in decades.”

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.