Gravity is an amazing accurate film in almost every way, except psychologically. Alfosno Cuaron went to great lengths to depict being in space as precisely and as viscerally as possible and he does so, at least visually, with stunning success. Those privileged to journey there report that space affected them in profound ways. Unfortunately, Gravity fails to address the psychological impact of being in space almost entirely.
Sandra Bullock plays mission specialist Ryan Stone, a scientist (not a career astronaut) who trained six months for her mission to retrofit the Hubble Telescope. By way of back story, we learn that Stone’s overly serious demeanor is more than just a reflection of the constant nausea she feels (a scourge of zero gravity that plagues many astronauts) and is the result of a traumatic loss in her past from which she never fully recovered (to keep this article as spoiler-free as possible, I will not go into specifics).
Loss and trauma are unfortunate but regular occurrences in life. Although they can vary tremendously in their scope and impact, there are two primary features common to all such emotional wounds. First, healing typically takes time. Depending on the nature of the events, it can take months and in some cases years to put our lives back together. Second, we know from many longitudinal studies that to recover as fully as possible, we must find a way to make sense of what happened, to gain a broader perspective, to weave the events into the larger tapestry of our lives and discover meaning and purpose within them.
Ryan Stone had not been able to find meaning in her loss, and so she never fully recovered before going up to space. And while events in the film do help her do so, psychologically speaking, they are not the correct ones. In the film, it is the struggle for survival that finally opens her eyes and allows her to “let go” of the past. But that struggle for survival could have taken place anywhere (like say, on a runaway bus…). What the filmmakers miss is the huge and profound psychological impact being in space has on those who have been there.
Many of us get perspective on things when we’re on vacation or traveling away from home. The literal distance allows us to see things, at least psychologically, from a wider view-point. If distance is conducive to getting a broader perspective, it would be hard to beat being in low Earth orbit looking down on the entire planet. Indeed, that exact view, observing Earth from the majestic perspective of space has had a profound impact on astronauts throughout history.
During the height of the Cold War, Soviet astronaut Aleksandr Aleksandrov experienced a true epiphany in orbit, “We were flying over America…And then it struck me that we are all children of our Earth.” Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins’ had an equally powerful realization, “If the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance…their outlook would be fundamentally changed… The earth must become as it appears: blue and white, not capitalist or communist; blue and white, not rich or poor; blue and white, not envious or envied.”
I had the pleasure of seeing Gravity in IMAX 3D, and the opening scenes in which the audience watches Earth from far above alongside the astronauts was so emotionally thrilling, it gave me goosebumps. Yet, the only thing that stirred inside Ryan Stone when she looked down on our planet from space was her lunch.
It’s hard to believe such an experience and such a view could leave anyone cold. It’s hard to imagine that spending your off hours staring at the Earth rotate beneath you, seeing the sun rise and set every ninety minutes, would not elicit a cascade of thoughts and reflections about the universe and your place in it. Hovering in orbit above Earth is probably the perfect place for people to process experiences such as loss and trauma and to find meaning in them.
This is the film’s biggest miss. Because, psychologically speaking, if looking down on our jewel of a planet doesn’t put the events of your life in perspective, if it doesn’t create new realizations about what has meaning in life, if floating in space doesn’t open your eyes then it’s hard to believe George Clooney will.
For practical exercises for finding meaning in loss and trauma, check out Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt, and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries (Hudson Street Press, 2013).
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Copyright 2013 Guy Winch
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Teaser image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net