Back Down to Earth
–Now that the dust has settled from the foolish exuberance surrounding the release of Gravity (2013), a claustrophobic Hollywood extravaganza set in outer space, it is time to grapple with Alfonso Cuaron’s tricksy movie. In October 2013, upon the original theatrical release of the film, New York Observer critic Rex Reed advised, “Accept Gravity as pure, popcorn-munching show business fun and nothing else, and you won’t go away disappointed.” It simply cannot be the case that Cuaron, the man who saved the Harry Potter film franchise from Chris Columbus, has merely created disposable entertainment. On the other hand, it is equally clear that the rabid celebrants of the film (for example, The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy calls Gravity “the most realistic and beautifully choreographed film ever set in space”) need to be brought back down to Earth.
By my accounting, Gravity has only three interesting sequences. Its stunning opening shots, where the camera slowly pans across the arc of the Earth, revealing astronauts working on the space shuttle, is a sumptuous revelation of the contrast in scale between the tiny humans and the enormous globe from which they are taking their preliminary baby steps. Second, the reverie in which Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is visited in an escape pod by Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is an act two scene sequence that forwards the plot via a Hamlet’s ghost construction that is particularly effective and elegant.
But for me, almost the entirety of the film’s interest lies in its final three minutes. After much derring-do, Stone lands her escape pod on the surface of the Earth. Crashing into Lake Mead in Arizona, she blows the hatch (a mistake when Gus Grissom did the same during his Mercury mission), causing the capsule to sink into the water. As she swims out of the descending capsule, she submerges further under the weight of her space suit. As she strips off the technology, she begins to ascend, clad only in her underwear. In the foreground of the image, a frog shows her the way. Finally on the surface, she breathes the Earth’s atmosphere for the first time in the film.
This, I think, is the allegorical key to the film, and one that links Cuaron’s project to the history of science fiction. Gravity is a kind of inversion of 2001, the film with which it most obviously competes in McCarthy’s category of beautifully choreographed space movies. Kubrick’s masterpiece concerns human evolution: monkeys discover bones can be used as weapons, and voila!, through the cinematic magic of a graphic match cut, their human descendants are suddenly flying through space in massive orbiters. 2001 ends with the star child entering Earth’s orbit, either an apocalyptic image of humanity’s end, or a hopeful one that charts the next phase of our evolution.
There is no star child—apocalyptic or utopian—in the last three minutes of Gravity. Instead, Cuaron argues simply that humans do not belong in space at all. The film begins with intertitles that catalog the reasons we should remain on Earth: “At 600km above planet Earth the temperature fluctuates between 258 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit. There is nothing to carry sound, no air pressure, no oxygen. Life in space is impossible.”
When Dr. Stone emerges out of the water, Cuaron presents us with a neo-evolutionary drama, in which our hero is reborn as a properly terrestrial being once again. Virtually all of the Earth’s spacecraft—the shuttle, the international space station, and any number of other nations’ space hardware—lie in ruins after a terrible cascade of destruction, raining down on the Earth in a spectacular meteor shower which Stone briefly watches as her first act upon landing on Earth.
The frog swimming upward with Stone first puts into play the evolutionary metaphor, as we observe the similarities in muscle movement of the amphibian and the mammal engaged in the act of propelling their bodies through the water. Now on the surface, Dr. Stone swims to shore. She begins crawling, struggling with the movement, not yet re-acclimated to Earth’s gravity. Unable to remove her body from the sand, she grabs it with her hand and clutches it to her breast. “Thank you,” she whispers.
She struggles to her knees, then stands unstably in a shallow pool of water. The camera remains at its position on the ground, tilting up to an extreme low angle at her now erect body. She stumbles forward a few steps, walking away from the camera, with green grass and the hills behind her in the distance. The end credits roll. In short, Dr. Stone re-enacts the evolutionary moment when our ancestors first crawled out of the primordial slime. However, this time, she does so by leaving behind the technology that threatened her life by stranding her in an environment where human life cannot be sustained.
She falls from technological grace, and is reborn, not in a religious sense, but in an evolutionary and secular one. Kubrick’s 2001 proposes that human beings are vile, not in their grotesque acts of evil, of which there are plenty of examples, but instead merely in their banality. The great explorers on the Discovery, headed out to Jupiter to encounter God’s monolith, are dull, horrible automatons, such that the HAL-9000, the evil computer, is by far the most human character in the movie. Cuaron’s final vision in Gravity is not nearly so bleak as Kubrick’s: the Mexican director’s film’s music, and that heroic last shot of Dr. Stone standing on the planet anew, is as hopeful an image as the cinema has produced since the late 1960s, as space exploration took a back seat to waging war and wallowing in human suffering.
– Walter Metz