Gravity is a story of survival in spite of obscenely difficult circumstances. The movie depicts an astronaut’s struggle with a continuous stream of obstacles within the sometimes serene, sometimes frightening realm of space. The trailers seemed to suggest that Gravity would be about disaster, about the unforgiving nature of life in the void and the horrific power of accidents. But taken as a whole the movie is about finding a reason for optimism, and thus for living.
Optimism drives the character development of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). The movie opens with a spacewalk, which is routine for mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a seasoned astronaut perpetually telling bawdy stories and accompanied by an endless stream of country music on his comm channel. For Dr. Stone it is anything but routine. She is having a rough time with every aspect of the mission and desperately trying not to vomit. Her plight is made worse when the team’s space shuttle is hit by a volley of debris, totally destroying the ship and killing every member of the crew except her and Kowalski.
Stone is immediately thrown off the ship and into free-flight, tumbling all the while. She panics and desperately calls for help on her radio, which eventually tapers out. Her situation seems hopeless and so does she. For a long moment she appears resigned to a fate of floating out into the vast nothingness and stops breathing. Abruptly she comes to her senses and regains contact with Kowalski, who rescues her. She and Kowalski float from hardship to hardship, their situation growing increasingly untenable as they proceed. They banter, with Kowalski providing Stone with moral and technical support in exchange for insights into her life. But eventually Stone is left on her own.
The obstacles continue to mount, but Stone’s will to survive and her focus grow rather than diminish. It is only when a situation seems hopeless that her drive tapers off, but the slightest hint of a way out of a bad situation provides her with renewed spirit. She pounds a control panel in frustration or turns off her oxygen in preparation for a painless death, but when she remembers that she can disengage a module to gain velocity or that she can use launch thrusters as propulsion, she is suddenly 100 percent committed to living once more.
We learn that this situation is not unusual for her, and that she has had a tragedy on Earth that was also seemingly impossible to overcome. She initially seems to be unsure of what she has to live for or why she should bother trying, but her resistance to adversity grows in proportion to the crisis she faces, and so too does her desire to live.
Her struggle is exceptionally intense and riveting to watch, especially because of the immersion Gravity’s viewers must endure. The perspective of most of the scenes is an intimate one, often from within the helmet of Stone’s spacesuit. When characters are sitting in landing modules or floating through space stations, the camera follows them and their swimming motions, caught within the claustrophobic confines of utilitarian vessels. And viewers must endure the confusing lack of orientation that comes from not being bound by earthly physics; what is up one second may be down or left moments later, and it is not rare for the camera to spin in wild rotation when characters find themselves thrown around by their exertions. The music adds to this, a constant droning and humming that leaves one feeling caught in the spin cycle of a washing machine.
Space is not depicted as a barren and empty place. It is a vast wasteland of debris and vehicles, with Earth perpetually looming over them. Only occasionally do we glimpse stars, but when we do it’s a bad thing, because it means that characters are drifting away from home. When we explore the wreckage of the space shuttle or the International Space Station, we are reminded of what it’s like to be live in microgravity, as assorted tchotchkes such as chess pieces or figurines float by—evidence that people have to eke some kind of life within this wild frontier. It’s an unforgiving place, as seen when Dr. Stone breaks down and starts crying, and her tears float directly off of her face.
But it’s also a soothing place and a place for contemplation. A poignant moment—practically an intermission—comes when Stone arrives at a space station for the first time. She is breathing C02 at this point, so once she closes the airlock and the chamber pressurizes, she takes full advantage of the moment of relief, stripping off her spacesuit and curling into a fetal position. One is reminded of the opening sequence of Barbarella, in which Jane Fonda also discards a spacesuit and flounces around in microgravity. But whereas in Barbarella the mood is one of cheeky exploitation and exhibitionism, Gravity’s disrobing is about showcasing vulnerability.
Gravity presents a universe in which everything that can go wrong will go wrong, and in which the reward for overcoming danger is more danger. There are scenes that will remind you of the heartbreaking stories of the crews of Challenger and Columbia. But it’s also a world where you have a chance to power through and keep going. Space, like Earth, is a dangerous place, full of freak accidents. But a determined human being is bigger than any accident.
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