Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
“So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”
From: “Birches” by Robert Frost
Editor’s Note: SPOILER ALERT!
Space tethers are like birches in Alfonso Cuarón’s much anticipated 3D thriller Gravity.
Near the beginning of the film when biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and expert astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are in the middle of a routine spacewalk, they receive an emergency alert from Houston that a crashed satellite has created a debris storm which is surging in their direction at a deadly pace. The warning is too late, though. Stone, Kowalski, and the rest of the crew scramble to avoid the debris, but there’s not enough time to take cover in the space shuttle Explorer, which turns out not to have been a safe shelter anyway. As the rest of the crew is dying off and the shuttle is damaged beyond repair, Stone, attached to the cargo bay arm of the distressed space craft which begins spinning rapidly out of control, is suddenly jolted away from the structure of the craft, attached now only to the arm whose wild pace threatens to send her too far away to recover contact and sustain her life. Spiraling quickly out of sight–and beyond Kowalski’s ability to track and retrieve her–Stone must detach from the arm if she is to slow her remove at all. What happens next elicits a sense of dread that I can’t possibly reproduce with words. Stone is free-floating out of control in space, and loses all connection with the shuttle, with Houston, and with Kowalski. She’s alone, and you begin to wonder if the rest of the film will unfold as a slow-burn of increasing hopelessness.
During these first moments of utter detachment, we’re invited to entertain the prospect of being lost in the cosmos.
The clearest visual theme in Gravity is connection. So much of the film’s narrative hinges on the (potential) support of swinging rope, cables, and other forms of space tether. During a pivotal scene in Cuarón’s intense space travelogue, Stone (Sandra Bullock) herself becomes an extended tether for Kowalski, and she’s desperate to avoid losing grip because it will almost surely mean Kowalski’s death. However, it’s also evident that holding on will only mean the death of them both, so Kowalski volunteers disengagement from Stone. In that moment, Stone is primarily concerned for Kowalski’s life, I think. But the moment is also a callback to an earlier scene when Kowalski is directly clutching Stone after she has almost been lost beyond recovery. Kowalski tells her that he must let go of her, but establishes a rope-like restraint so that he’s able to navigate them to safety while towing her behind him.
In the split-second before Kowalski releases Stone to pull her along, Stone is adamantly against losing physical connection with her colleague. “No no no no!” she yells. It’s a sharp contrast from the film’s opening scene in which Stone says that she enjoys the silence, implying that she’d be content to be alone in space. We discover that life in Lake Zurich, Illinois is not good for the doctor; her daughter died at a young age in a schoolyard accident. Stone’s description of the pain associated with the aftermath of that accident has to do with travel and alienation. She would drive in her car and listen to the noise of the radio, drowning in her grief in a way that puts her in danger of floating away from any fixed reference point in her existence. But the brief escape from the hurtfulness of that existence is a respite. And it seems space travel is even more so than the automobile.
For Stone, life has become too much like a pathless wood. She’d routinely like to get away from earth for awhile, and swing from the birches. In space, though, fate threatens willful misunderstanding–the possibility of snatching her away, not to return.
Gravity’s is a simple narrative, and for most of the film that’s fine because the visual and three dimensional spectacle–the sheer cosmological scale of the film’s setting–complements a thin plot. The narrative is, quite simply, the prospect of losing one’s self into the endless void, and how that dread is analogical to an existential weight that resonates with all of us to varying degree. Much has been made of Gravity’s script and it does stumble in a couple of places. Namely, I could do without Stone transforming into Gracie Hart or Annie Porter to tell us that “space sucks” with a bit too much out-of-character Bullock-quippiness. Worst of all, though, is when Kowalski’s ghost-of-sorts appears to Stone to provide what is essentially a scene of “Okay, now explain word-for-word for everyone who doesn’t get it what is already established unspoken in the film.” It’s a scene which actually undercuts the film’s stakes because the exposition distracts from our immersion in those stakes. These instances, though, weren’t enough to diminish the ways in which Cuarón’s film works well.
Chief among what works is the film’s three dimensional achievement. You could watch a trailer which shows beat for beat the first paragraph of this review–you might even watch it on a screen which is the equivalent size to the cineplex’s–but you wouldn’t quite experience the film in a way it’s meant to be experienced. Given most 3D releases to this point, that’s quite an achievement. Most often, 3D doesn’t enhance anything at all–even creating distraction–that keeps people content to forgo paying extra for the illusion of depth perception. But here, the enhanced illusion of space’s eternal void–effectually foregrounding with added weight every heaving gasp for air, every smudge of breath on the helmet pane, and every attempted grasp for tether–is a terrifying, breathtaking experience. Due to its 3D accomplishment, Gravity is uniquely that: an experience. This has a few critics pejoratively comparing the film to a mere roller coaster. Setting aside for a moment what one thinks of roller coasters (I do enjoy them) and what one hopes to experience at the movie theater, it’s helpful to consider what we mean when we describe a film experience as a “thrill ride.”
We know what it is to float aimlessly through existence, alienated from any fixed point of reference like untethered astronauts. The illusion of floating through space with Stone–more than that, even at times thrust into Stone’s first-person perspective as if we are Stone–is recognizable in a way that’s less like Space Mountain and more like the disorientation of the pathless wood. In this context, “thrill” takes on a specific experiential simulation: anguish in the face of seeming absurdity. This familiar narrative is that menacing incongruity between life as it is and life as it ought to be, and the creeping fear that there in fact is no meaningfully evident “ought.” I agree that other films have explored this territory with more nuance, and subtlety, but Gravity’s endeavor is a memorable one on its own terms.
Within this purview, the via point to Stone’s inner life is her spacewalking actions, Steven Price’s looming soundtrack, and the three dimensional threat of nausea. And that’s a formidable trio.
Walker Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos is a brilliant satire of Americans’ self-defeating love for autonomy, or more crudely, our passion for self-help. I don’t think the problematic corollary between autonomy and alienation applies much to Gravity, though there’s something to the idea that Dr. Stone finds the idea of being alone in space an attractive respite from her intensely felt dislocation. And, therefore, it’s interesting that part of her refuge in the third act is praying, though no one had taught her how to pray. The sense of self-dislocation and the irony that we often attempt to avert that self-dislocation through travel is notable in Percy’s book. Referring to a hypothetical New Yorker who is bored with New York and dreams of feeling at home elsewhere, Percy quips,
You are a native of New York City, you live in New York, work in New York, travel about the city with no particular emotion except mild boredom, unease, exasperation, and dislike especially for, say, Times Square and Brooklyn, and a longing for a Connecticut farmhouse. You make enough money and move to a Connecticut farmhouse. Later you become an astronaut and wander in space for years. You land on a strange, unexplored (you think) planet. There you find a road sign with an arrow, erected by a previous astronaut in the manner of GIs in World War II: ‘Brooklyn 9.6 light-years.’ Explain your emotion.
The image of human beings as earthbound astronauts, if never explicitly expressed, is a metaphor that underlines Percy’s book. In his chapter titled “The Orbiting Self,” Percy discusses how some scientists, artists, and writers rely on manners of “transcendence” to overcome the troubles of ordinary life: “But what is not generally recognized is that the successful launch of self into the orbit of transcendence is necessarily attended by problems of reentry. What goes up must come down.” One of the problematic “reentries” that Percy lists is “reenetry refused, existus into deep space (suicide)[.]” Percy’s metaphorical language here is precisely what’s at stake in Gravity. Stone’s struggle is not merely to survive, but also whether or not she wants to survive. Would “reentry” into earth’s ordinary life be any different for Stone than floating idly by in deep space?
Reentry hinges on whether or not Stone can tether her existence to a purpose which isn’t necessarily overcome by pain, especially grief and suffering. Stone comes to recognize that she’s still afraid of dying; she wants to live. And a significant aspect of her successful “reentry” involves religious signs and moments. Stone prays in the midst of her crisis, beginning her prayer with an acknowledgement that no one has taught her how to pray. We see a Buddha in another space craft. But one of the most significant moments of Stone’s turn from despair comes when she sees an icon of St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, carrying the Christ-child on his shoulders across the river. To reckon with her despair means that it’s safe for her to come back down to earth. Some people have complained that Gravity is an example of “watered down” religion; perhaps in a film with a smaller scale and a less existential concern, I might agree. But given the film’s scale, concerns, and approach, these signs and moments struck me as significant insinuations about humanity’s religious impulse–a signal as to some of the potential specific answers to the problem of existential despair. As Malcolm Gladwell has recently rediscovered, some of the most amazing power in the world is the faith which is able to persevere and thrive during and after enormous adversity.
“Thank you,” Stone says prayerfully upon reentry, and so it seems that part of overcoming despair is recovering a sense of gratitude and hope. Just before Stone stands to her feet, she allows her face close to the earthy ground and seems to breathe it in. Earth is the right place for love; she’s learned that she doesn’t know where it’s likely to go better. The film’s beautiful final imagery suggests that Stone’s learning to walk again. And the way Gravity’s immersive thrills work is such that we’re encouraged leave the swinging from birches we’ve done over the course of the film and reenter ordinary life with a bit of our own hope that the earth–ordinary life–is the right place for love.
Some varied perspectives/reactions to Gravity that I found insightful: