*I wrote this essay with Julia Elia, Arjun Narayen & Monica Zuraw*
And it is all one to me. Where I am to begin; for I shall return there again.
~ Parmenides of Elea
Gravity busted the block. We caught the spectacle in 3D at the local IMAX theater. The experience was captivating. The clever use of perspective draws the viewer in to experience space from the protagonist’s (Bullock’s Stone) point of view and to gaze at her from space in turn. Change of perspective creates its own relativity. Is Stone spinning or is it Mother Earth? Either way, the viewer is thrust into fear and vertigo, having lost the Archimedean point that stabilizes the universe.
As a space movie, Gravity has to contend with relevant precedents. It effectively steers clear of the space travel, star wars, and alien encounters genres. That leaves Apollo 13 as a comparison. The parallel is clear. There is plenty of sustained danger with triumph at the end. Yet, Gravity is total fiction, and it shows. The movie’s unabashed fictionality coupled with the sense that perhaps something like this might happen scores a point for creativity. It is a modest point because it wrests originality from the recombination of established motifs.
Since Parmenides and Ecclesiastes, one school of thought holds that nothing is ever new. All we can have is the eternal reworking of familiar themes. The trick is to disguise their antiquity. The viewer is enraptured inasmuch as she responds to the familiar while believing she is being taken to a new place. The plot of Gravity plays this tune well. The arc of crisis, danger, mortal threat, and narrow escape is repeated several times, each time ratcheting up the cortisol. Given our mammalian penchant for habituation, this has to be so. The arc represents a simple version of the oldest story of the world: The hero’s journey (Campbell, 1973). It is a wonderful and powerful story, probably invented by Homo Habilis. It gives warning, guidance, and hope all at the same time.
, the creative re-telling of the journey story focuses on a woman (Bullock’s Ryan Stone) with a masculine male name. She is a wounded person, having lost her only child. Her soul, as it were, has turned to stone. She must be reminded that life is worth living. This is achieved with the repeated threat of death and repeated images of re-birth. The first such image is the most direct one, showing Stone in a fetal position in the space shuttle she has just re-entered in a narrow escape from death. She then proceeds to float through the narrow birth-canal-like passages of the space station. Coming back from a carbon dioxide induced near-death hallucination represents another, albeit less obvious, moment of rebirth. The most powerful image of rebirth is the final scene. Stone has survived re-entry into the atmosphere. Her tiny craft has parachuted into water. Stone struggles to get out, facing water gushing into her cockpit. She must allow herself to be fully engulfed by water before she can exit the craft-uterus. Meanwhile, the craft has sunk to the sea floor. Getting to the surface is the final challenge. Stone must shed her space suit, which is dragging her down. Again, she is reduced to her fetal body. No more technology to mediate her survival. This is a raw moment. Stone swims up and breaks the surface with a tremendous gasp for air. This is a familiar scene, and it is effective as the climactic moment of resurrection. Next, Stone lies on a beach, clutching (caressing) a fistful of sand (Mother Earth). Then she gets up and stands tall. The camera does not get up with her but beholds Colossus Stone from below. This is the moment of redemption, the crux of the journey story, the apotheosis of the survivor.
The bleak landscape Stone walks into is devoid of people (or recognizable animals). Gravity stays true to its commitment to study the psychology of human isolation. In space, the theme of human connection—and lack thereof—is meditated by the sound of voices—and not hearing them. Back on Mother Earth, the effect is amplified by not showing what viewers may expect: other people. And thank goodness, Gravity avoids the trap of showing the Navy and its helicopters waiting on site. That would have destroyed Gravity.
Glorious space imagery and the plot of danger, isolation, and rebirth are the heart of Gravity. These are familiar themes, creatively reworked. The rest is commentary. Here’s a sample.
Ethnocentrism. Most American movies are painfully ethnocentric and intoxicated with the idea of America. Not so Gravity. The human adventure in space is recognized as an international project. The Russians and the Chinese are there, though dead, and the Americans are mostly dead, so they don’t look awfully superior. Each nation gets a gentle ribbing from the pages of the stereotype book. The Americans have their country music, while the Russians have their Vodka and the Chinese have their ping-pong handles (and Buddha—where’s Confucius when you need him? Perhaps the C-man would not be recognized by the viewing audience).
Sexism (or lack thereof). The byline of Gravity might be The Demotion of Clooney. Bullock is the star. She has tomboy credentials, but she is all woman (and mother) nonetheless. If it weren’t Bullock in space, who would it be? Sigourney Weaver without a doubt. In Alien, Ms. Weaver delivered a performance that changed our idea of what to expect from science fiction and the women in it. Alas, her revolutionary Ripley would rule her out for Gravity because the memories are too strong. We would see Gravity as a piece of science fiction, and not as a possible reality.
Clooney’s character Kowalski (is this Polish for Clooney?) is surreal in his unflappability in the face of death. Bullock is fully human; Clooney is not. When Bullock hallucinates Clooney, he gets as close to the image of a guardian angel as cinema will allow. One might as well think of his presence throughout the movie as a Bullock hallucination.
If Clooney didn’t play Kowalski, who could? None of the regular action heroes (Tom Cruise) would do because they would interfere with Bullock’s mission to tell the journey story. A comedian (Ben Stiller) would drain the gravitas from Gravity. A nobody might do, but only Clooney can bring the levity to Gravity that succeeds without descending into ridiculousness. It is painfully (or perhaps delightfully) obvious that Clooney is playing himself. He even mocks his own narcissism (or the narcissism the audience attributes to him) when rhetorically asking Stone about her views on his devastating handsomeness. Clooney has fun with his own living cliché, and we respect him for that.
Clooney playing himself opens a logical paradox. Borges poked into this quicksand when exploring Kafka and his predecessors. The Borgesian conundrum is this: When Clooney plays himself, he is enmeshed in comparison. He is at the same time he who is doing the comparing, and he who his being compared. In Butler’s (2010) notation, there is the *Clooney* of comparison arising from the compared Clooney. Wrapping one’s head around Clooney and *Clooney* is a kafkaesque enterprise; or, as Broges would have it, qaphqaesque. We wish to give Clooney credit for this creative, if not entirely novel, maneuver. But which Clooney?
Playing with fire. Gravity begins with a lack thereof. Mother Earth finally asserts herself, pulling Bullock and the debris of human hubris back into her fiery embrace. Here, Gravity courts disaster. The images of wreckage streaking aflame through the atmosphere are eerily similar of the images all but the youngest viewers remember from the demise of Columbia. One might say this overt play on memory is indecent. Then again, there is a tradition in film-making that retells historical catastrophes with a happy ending. The crew of Columbia perished; Bullock lives. The overall scientific accuracy of Gravity is widely admired (but see here). Yet, Bullock’s unscathed re-entry and rebirth beggar the imagination. But then again, the Neolithic tale of the heroine’s triumph demands it.
Butler, R. (2010). Everything and nothing: On Jorge Luis Borges’s “Kafka and his precursors.” Romance Quarterly, 57, 129-141.
Campbell, J. (1973). The hero with a thousand faces. Princeton University Press.