If you don’t have a physics degree and you aren’t planning to work as an astronaut, then it just suffers a few clichés and character violations, but it can be forgiven those for its overall quality and spectacle.
If you do have a physics degree and like complaining, or you want to have the film spoiled, read on…
1) Why is the shuttle flying? Didn’t it get discontinued for being a death trap?
2) A jetpack that can fly in circles continuously for more than 5 hours? With our current technology, about as credible as a steam-powered helicopter.
3) The jets seem to be coming out of that pack at random. If he’s flying in circles, the thrust would need to keep propelling him towards the centre of his circle.
4) What are three people doing out of the shuttle at once (higher risk) and why is one doing nothing but bouncing on a bungee? Time is money, people!
5) How come all those debris are travelling on exactly parallel paths and staying together? Aren’t they meant to be going at a relative speed greater than a rifle bullet, so how are we seeing them coming?
6) Aren’t you meant to wait until at least halfway through the film before killing off the ethnic minority support character for sympathy, these days?
7) To misquote HitchHiker, Space is tiny. Really tiny. I mean, you might think it’s only a tiny distance to the next town, but you wouldn’t even see something the size of a space station at that distance when tumbling head over heels and traumatised. You might think that, relative to the whole Earth, it’s only a small distance to the next city, but even without friction, you’d never get there with some landing jets and a fire extinguisher. Luckily, space is much smaller than that! Everything is at the same height, in the same orbit, same speed, within a few kilometres of each other—no wonder those debris hit everything at once!
I have a screenplay you might be interested in, a disaster movie set in America. The heroine falls off the Empire State building when it’s hit by a metoerite, but luckily she lands in Lake Michigan. She tells her friend where to find her because she can see the Washington Monument from there. The eastern seaboard is on fire so she hops pillion on his bike and they pedal over to LA, getting there half an hour later. That gets hit by an earthquake so they get in a rowing boat and make it to Hawaii…. get the picture?
8) If you’re going to transport someone else with your jetpack, towing them on a line is probably the worst way to do it. Your thrust jets would be hitting them and getting wasted at best, doing damage at worst. Without air friction she would constantly be bouncing back and forward, hitting off you and then yanking you off course. And the spin wouldn’t correct itself, it would probably get worse. Seeing how throwing up in a spacesuit would likely lead to an incredibly unpleasant death, that’s a bad idea. Lucky that Ryan’s nausea was only caused by the boredom of not being in mortal danger, and has completely vanished.
The best way to transport her would be to have her hanging on to Clooney’s front, upside-down so that he could see between her legs. Er, Houston? Something just happened to half our female readership…
9) Character violation: Kowalski is presented as superbly calm, professional and competent under pressure. Why would he do a damn fool thing like going to retrieve a corpse when living people are in danger, and there’s not a thing he can do with it anyway? He saw the shuttle get hit, remember! If he hadn’t done this, he might have had enough fuel in his miraculous jet pack to get safely to the station.
Pretty sure they lost the corpse when they hit the shuttle, but then it appears again tied to it, and sure enough, they can do nothing but abandon it with the other two bodies.
10) Speaking of the miraculous jetpack, how come he makes a point of crashing into everything at speed? It’s a miracle that nobody’s suit gets broken.
11) ….but then they’d be a lot less crashing into things. If you hit another space object the odds are that you either grab on or you bounce off and get lost forever, you don’t keep tumbling around/past it for ages.
12) NASA has big, powerful radio stations on the surface. So do lots of others. How do you think the signals get up to satellites in the first place? You might need local relays for suit radios, but spacecraft and stations would be able to communicate fine.
13) The ISS is in an orbit 320 miles different in height to Hubble, so it would be going at a different relative speed. Just saying.
14) Why are they hanging off the space station at the end of a rope? They’re weightless, for f***’s sake.
15) Character violation/Gross stupidity: If Ryan wanted to save Kowalski, she would be heading to the Soyuz capsule as fast as possible. If she wanted to save her own life so that his sacrifice was not in vain, she would be getting inside. If she was remotely concerned about the painful asphyxiation overtaking her at this point, she would be going for the hatch as well. Not hanging around flapping and making the situation worse like a female portrayal from 50 years ago.
16) Under your spacesuit, you wear a big vest of cooling pipes and an adult nappy. I would like to see someone doing a profound “I’m alive!” scene in those. That would really take hardcore acting!
17) Nice of those ruskies to write “Fire” in English, wasn’t it?
18) Given everything that has already happened, the hallucination of Kowalski running into her Soyuz and depressurising it without killing her was actually no more ridiculous than anything that has already happened.
19) When she’s propelling herself to the Chinese space station with the fire extinguisher, she winds up holding it under her chin. Given that your centre of mass is around your stomach, it would actually set you spinning in that position. Successfully flying using a jet like that is probably a feat of skill on a par with juggling 5 knives simultaneously the very first time you try it. There’s a reason they spent millions on jetpacks instead…
20) Why is that station dropping into the atmosphere? Coincidence? Or has it got hit by something that was so slow and large that it slowed the orbit down without smashing the station to pieces?
21) Finally, I’ll mention something they got right: the tumbling re-entry capsule righting itself so that it’s flying heat-shield first. They actually do design them so that the “centre of drag” is behind the centre of mass, so that’s their stable falling position. That’s so clever I don’t really understand it.
22) I enjoyed the film. Getting to enjoy it again by slagging it off is a bonus!