Ed Harris' Cameo In Gravity Was The Perfect Nod To Another Space Classic

Alfonso Cuarón's "Gravity' works on multiple levels. You can enjoy it purely as a thriller about Sandra Bullock's astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone fighting for dear life to stay alive in outer space. Cuarón, working yet again with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki ("Y tu mamá también," "Children of Men"), shot most of the film in extended takes on a sound stage. Together, they created a terrifyingly believable vision of the cosmos using photo-real CGI and close-ups of Bullock and her costar, George Clooney, reacting with appropriate concern to being stranded in the dark, cold abyss.

Outer space also functions as a metaphor for Ryan's detached emotional state in the wake of her daughter's tragic death. Indeed, the movie is filled with images that allude directly to Ryan's spiritual death and rebirth, culminating with a final shot of her crashing into a lake on Earth and emerging on the nearby shore like she's the first life-form to ever set foot on land. Of course, one would be remiss to dig deeper into the symbolism and hidden meanings of "Gravity" without bringing up its most overt nod to another classic space film.

This specific Easter Egg pops up in the movie's single-take opening scene, in which the space shuttle Explorer slowly moves into the foreground of the shot while orbiting the Earth. "Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission," says the shuttle's commander Matt Kowalski (Clooney) over the comms, prompting the head of Mission Control in Houston, Texas, to reply, "Please expand." It turns out Clooney's good-natured space explorer is merely sharing a funny story about a previous mission. What's more exciting is the voice of the film's unseen NASA director, which belongs to none other than "Apollo 13" star Ed Harris.

Houston, we have a problem

Released in 1995, director Ron Howard's "Apollo 13" centers on the titular NASA lunar mission-gone-wrong. Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon starred as the real-life astronauts who had to safely navigate their way back to Earth after their spacecraft suffered a mechanical failure causing an on-board explosion part-way through their journey to the Moon. Leading the charge on the ground to bring the three men back in the film is Harris' White Team Flight Director Gene Kranz.

Howard's true-story space thriller was a critical and box office hit that won the Oscars for Best Sound and Best Film Editing in 1996. It also took home an additional seven Academy Awards nods that included one for Harris' supporting role, lest anyone assume the actor wasn't recognized for his contributions to the movie. "Apollo 13" was further praised for its technical accuracy, especially in the scenes filmed aboard a reduced gravity aircraft to better simulate the weightlessness of astronauts in space. Amusingly, though, one of its most-nitpicked inaccuracies is the iconic line delivered by Hanks' Jim Lovell: "Houston, we have a problem." As Space.com noted in 2013 (*adopts Anton Ego voice*), the real Lovell actually said, "Houston, we've had a problem."

It's worth mentioning that Harris also appeared in another classic space movie prior to "Apollo 13." That would be "The Right Stuff," the 1983 film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's book of the same name about the history of the U.S. space program. Harris starred as John Glenn, the third American to go into space as well as the first one to orbit the Earth (which he did three times, probably just to show off). That said, as fitting as it would have been if "Gravity" had snuck in a reference to Harris' role in "The Right Stuff," the shout-out to his turn in "Apollo 13" is pretty dang perfect as-is.