Sunday, October 6, 2013

Gravity: The Movie (Spoilers)

Major spoilers for Gravity abound here - if you haven't seen the movie yet and don't want to know what happens in it, turn back now!
Public domain image from NASA showing Edward White performing a spacewalk
I saw Gravity, the 2013 film directed by Alfonso Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney on Saturday, October 5th. I went with my parents and husband - we saw it in 3D. I hadn't seen a movie in the theater since Life of Pi. As with Life of Pi, I was glad we paid the few extra dollars for the 3D experience.

First we saw a preview of Keanu Reeves' latest, 47 Ronin. Rick Genest is in it. I bet makeup artists love Rick Genest because he's, like, 90% done already when he sits in the makeup chair. But I digress.

Gravity, in some ways, is a very minimalist film. The only actors whose faces we see are Bullock and Clooney. For the first act, the backdrop is the earth, mostly covered in pillowy clouds but with bright stripes of human habitation shining through.

Sandra Bullock in 2009; Creative Commons image by Angela George
Later, we move through various human-created environments in space: first the destroying Explorer shuttle, then the International Space Station and a Soyuz module, then the Chinese space station and its escape pod. Those are very mechanized, artificial environments, and all are portrayed as overflowing with weightless human-made junk. However, the film starts out very starkly, with simple white letters on a black background reminding us that there is neither atmosphere nor gravitational pull in the void of space, and life in such an environment is therefore impossible.

I'm no great student of the films of Alfonso Cuaron; I think the only other one of his movies that I've seen is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. (It's my favorite HP movie, but that's not necessarily because of Cuaron's directing. I do think he did a great job, though.) I don't know anything about his philosophies, but I do think he tried to get us to notice something:




Creative Commons image
I mean, he told us essentially that in the opening titles. When we first meet the three astronauts engaged in their mission, though, they seem to be vibrantly full of life. Clooney's character, Matt Kowalsky, is engaged in snappy banter with mission control and the two astronauts who are aboard the shuttle as he tests a jet pack. Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), a physician trained as an astronaut to test equipment with medical applications, is extremely focused on her work. The third spacewalker, Dr. Sharif, performs repairs while dancing.

Then, shit goes spectacularly wrong when the Russians blow up one of their own satellites, setting off a chain-reaction debris avalanche. The crew attempts an emergency evac, but it's too late: Kowalsky and Stone are the only survivors. (Zero points for ethnic diversity; there's one Indian-American or Pakistani-American character, and he's dead within minutes. We see his face only after the character's death and in a photograph.) Kowalsky manages to rescue Stone from her free spiral through empty space, but in the process of reaching the ISS, must sacrifice himself so that Stone has a chance to survive.

If the movie can be broken down to its most essential conflicts, they would be woman vs. nature and woman vs. herself, and this is essentially the story of one woman's survival. You can think of it as a female version of 27 Hours. But - and bear with me here - I think one possible interpretation of this movie is that Ryan Stone is NOT a survivor, but in fact dies in space and is reborn when she emerges from the Chinese space capsule in the ocean.

The most obvious reference to the fact that the human-made environments in space serve as a second womb for Stone occurs when she first reaches the ISS airlock. Stone strips out of her oxygen-depleted flight suit, closes her eyes, curls up into a fetal position and floats in mid-air, thick tethers serving as an artificial umbilical cord. The visual is far too obvious to be a coincidence.

And why would she need to be reborn? Because she's dead - not in an all-too-literal Sixth Sense sense, but at least in this metaphorical sense: she "died" when her daughter died. What does she do on earth? Work, then drive, listening to the radio. She goes into orbit to do the exact same things: work, "drive," listen to the radio. Listening to the disembodied voices on the radio is her way of disconnecting from actual, living human beings; she goes into a world of ghosts. In her ghost world, Stone learns she can talk to her deceased daughter again. She can talk to Kowalsky after his noble self-sacrifice; he can even answer her, offer her the Russians' hidden stash of vodka, and - most importantly - help her solve problems. She sees dead people, but fights to return to the land of the living. Space is death. The only life is life on earth.

(Yes, there is a neuro-biological explanation for why she imagines or hallucinates Kowalsky: she's turned down to the oxygen in the Soyuz capsule to less than what her brain needs, and she's experiencing oxygen deprivation.)

The International Space Station, with Soyuz capsule, in a public domain/NASA photo
So Ryan Stone saves herself, using the last bit of thrust the Soyuz possesses to reach the abandoned Chinese space station and return to earth in its escape pod. When she hits the ocean, her capsule catches fire, and rather than waiting to be rescued, she has to submerge it and swim out. Bursting out from a liquid-filled metallic womb, rising to the surface to take her first gasp of air? Definitely a birth scene, without a doubt. The last frames of the movie show Stone standing up in the sand and taking her first steps.

You could almost say there's an ecological message to this movie: care for the earth, because it's the only thing keeping us alive, and beyond it there's nothing but cold junk and death. Rebirth is clearly a central theme of the movie. You could say that Stone has been reincarnated after she's died and gone to "the heavens." Reincarnation is also suggested by the Buddha images the Chinese astronauts left on the monitor in their escape pod (the Buddha being one of the few enlightened beings able to escape an otherwise endless cycle of births, deaths, and reincarnations)*.

Creative Commons photo by Jakub Halun
Incidentally, the Russian capsule bears an image of St. Christopher with the Christ child on his shoulders. This makes sense for cosmonauts, because Christopher is the patron saint of travelers and sailors traditionally pray to him during storms. In this case, the "storm" was also caused by the Russians.

If you're one who believes in reincarnation in terms of a goddess-centered vision of the afterlife, then it might make sense to you that the earth itself is the goddess in this scenario. At death (and I think we can make the case that Stone is at least metaphorically dead when she leaves the earth's atmosphere, in the sense that she "stopped living" when her daughter died), one's soul leaves the earth/ascends to the heavens (as in Norse mythology, when the Valkyries come down from the sky on their flying horses and carry the fallen warriors upward), one is separated from the goddess, but then one returns to the body of the goddess (in this case, under the ocean, which is depicted as teeming with life), is born again, and lives another life.

Although the Gaia Hypothesis - that the earth and everything on it function as one living organism - is a scientific and not religious school of thought, people sometimes do adapt it to religious purposes - i.e. worshiping the earth itself as a deity because life cannot exist without it. Was Cuaron hinting at something like this when he directed this movie? I have no idea, but he plants some intriguing clues.

Alfonso Cuaron in a Creative Commons image by Gage Skidmore
*Someone please let me know if I am incorrect and that statue wasn't a Buddha.

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