Gravity: Braving Tragedy
Space. It’s awesome.
And not in the overused sense of the word that is so often employed to describe things of a slightly interesting nature (“Dude, there’s leftover pizza in the fridge. Awesome!”), but rather in the classical sense of the word which was almost exclusively used to describe things of startling and humbling magnitude (e.g. God, the cosmos, the oceans, atom bombs).
While filmmakers have often made space the setting for their movies, few have used it as uniquely as Alfonso Cuaron did in his 2013 sci-fi drama, Gravity. It’s acted as the stage for biopics depicting our sojourns into that majestic unknown (The Right Stuff, Apollo 13) and it’s also been used as the backdrop for survivalist narratives showing man’s struggle to ensure humanity’s continuity (Armageddon, Interstellar). But Gravity depicts space as a blanket, a shield from tragedy that is truly impenetrable. Through Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, space is rendered both as a protective cocoon in which the film’s protagonist, Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) protects herself, and the dangerous, unknowable abyss that threatens to kill her.
Ryan has experienced about as terrible a series of events as anyone can in a single lifetime. The father of her daughter (it’s never detailed whether he was her husband, boyfriend, or just some casual acquaintance) abandoned them. Ryan raised her girl, loved her, fostered within her all the good things that should be fostered in a child, but even then the insidious tentacles of tragedy constricted themselves around Ryan’s life again. One day at school, her little girls slips, falls down some stairs, and breaks her neck. Just like that she’s gone. As Ryan aptly describes it, “It’s the stupidest thing.”
Without much left to live for, she devotes herself to NASA, finding herself on a repair mission along with astronauts Shariff (voiced by Phaldut Sharma) and Matt Kowalski (played be George Clooney). The mission goes fairly well for a while, but then goes kaput when shrapnel from a destroyed satellite starts hurtling towards them. Bits of the scuttled ship kill Shariff and destroy the craft on which Ryan and Matt were anchored, causing them to be adrift in space.
Matt finds Ryan and he begins to tow them to the nearest craft, a Russian station. It’s at this moment when it becomes clear that this sci-fi thriller is a whole lot more than just a fun survival narrative. Sure, all the excitement is there, but unlike most disaster movies, there is an element of poetry thrown into the mix. Any of you who have taken a literature course have probably heard of the “pathetic fallacy.” Basically it’s the personification of human emotions in the environment. Remember the part in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy crawls through the tube of human gunk and it’s raining outside? Following the rules of the pathetic fallacy, one could read that as a symbol of Andy’s having to endure over a decade of prison time for a crime he didn’t commit and his ultimate cleansing of the past. It’s a neat little metaphorical trick that can certainly add a level of meaning to any story, and it’s without a doubt present in Gravity.
Ryan could’ve done anything for NASA, right? She’s an engineer, but that doesn’t mean she had to go into space. She could’ve stayed on Earth and worked in a cubicle if she wanted. But she voluntarily decided to go to space. Matt’s an adventurer; he loves going into space and risking his life and, at the end of the day, he doesn’t have a wife or kids to go back to so, even if he were to die during a mission, it wouldn’t hurt anyone. He can tell Ryan is anything but an adventurer, so he asks her, “What do you like about space?” Without hesitation, she replies, “The silence.”
Silence. That doesn’t just mean the absence of noise. Silence means perfect stillness, quietude. In a word, harmony. It means not having to deal with all the problems life throws at you. It means taking a permanent trip to Neverland, where one gets to stay a fussy kid forever without the impending, and necessary, period of growing up. This doesn’t mean Ryan is a childish person, but it does mean she has a childish view of things. She thinks that if she can just get far enough away from people, then she’ll never have to experience tragedy again. And what does she learn? Even in space, even in the complete absence of people, trouble can, and almost certainly will, find you.
It isn’t an easy lesson for her to learn, though. In fact, she spends a substantial amount of the movie trying to keep from learning it. When she and Matt arrive at the Russian station, they get jumbled up on the rigs’ parachute and Matt sacrifices himself so that Ryan won’t get dragged away with him into the colossal maw of the cosmos. She manages to enter the Russian craft, but finds out that there’s no fuel to get her back to Earth. This is the worst of the worst for her; she took a chance with Matt and ran smack into a dead end. In lieu of any viable options, Ryan decides to resign herself to the situation and die.
But before she suffocates, she dreams or imagines Matt entering the capsule with her. It’s in this moment that Matt breaks down the rules for Ryan, rules as wise and true as those found in any great work:
Listen, do you wanna go back, or do you wanna stay here? I get it. It’s nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights, and just close your eyes and tune out everyone. There’s nobody up here that can hurt you. It’s safe. I mean, what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. Doesn’t get any rougher than that. But still, it’s a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life… It’s time to go home.
In his novel The Lord is my Shepherd, Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about Psalm 23:4, which reads, “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” He pays extra attention to the adverb – through. Religious or not, anyone can appreciate the meaning of the Psalm. “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” is the most piercing bit of knowledge that all people possess; that one day we are going to die and along the way we are going to have a lot of pain in store for us. It’s just one of the things that comes with being born. People will let us down, betray us, and at worst, the people we care about the most will pass away. Yet, there’s no going around the Valley, there’s no going over or under. One can only go through. And even then, there are those who can’t muster the strength to traverse it. As Kushner, a man who lost his own son to Progeria, says in the book, “I have known people who were hurt by life and chose to remain in the shadow. They never made it through the valley to a place where the sun could shine on them again. I often wondered why they chose to stay there” (p.94). He goes so far as to answer his own question by saying that receiving sympathy can almost become addictive. Once one is pitied and aided, there is the temptation to live in a coddled state where all of their problems are taken care of by others.
One can survive that way. By that isn’t living. Not by a long shot.
In the end, it’s all Ryan’s choice. She can stay and go to the only place that can assure her closure, peace, and quiet (death) or she can live, which takes courage and strength. She chooses right. She gets to work, and rather than being overtaken by the situation, she starts taking control of it. She manages to fly to another station and from there she begins her return to Earth on one of the capsules. She lands safely in the water and manages to crawl back onto the shore. She stands tall and, though she trembles like an infant, she takes her first steps back to the land of the living.
Lest I sound like a callous brute, I do not mean to say that people should immediately tell others to “just get over” life’s tragedies. It’d be very cruel for a person telling a grieving parent, widow, or orphan that they should “just get over it.” But life doesn’t stop just because one experiences an injustice, a tragedy, or a moment of despair. In the words of Deadwood’s harshest inhabitant, Al Swearengen, “the world ends when you’re dead.” The easy way out is available to everyone. But for the courageous and for those who seek meaning in life, there is the capacity to overcome life’s difficulties, even after the worst tragedies.
Turning to another source of bountiful and nourishing wisdom, Rabbi Naomi Levy (them Rabbis sure are smart, ain’t they?) once talked about a discrepancy in the translation of one of the Hebrew Psalms. One translation reads, “Let me not die, but live.” That’s a nice enough sentiment, certainly a call to adulthood, enterprise, and endurance. But there is another translation, one that is just as powerful, if not more so than the original. The same Psalm can be read as, “Let me not die while I am still alive” (my italics). Despair is basically death without the mystery. It’s the lack of happiness, interest, or energy. It is spiritual entropy. And perhaps its most insidious characteristic is that it is so easy to fall into. That is, in essence, what space is in Gravity; as the opening title card reminds the audience, “Life in space is impossible.” That isn’t just because there’s no oxygen or air pressure. Life in space is impossible because there’s no one there to share it with.
Such despair can, however, be overcome. It takes a lot of work – there’s no doubt about it. It takes going back to a vulnerable state where some of the most important answers to life’s questions are always just a little out of reach and where one has to admit that they aren’t in control of everything.
But as Ryan shows, it’s worth it. Life is worth living, even with all its disappointments and setbacks. Life is seldom fulfilling for those who treat it like a spectator sport, just sitting back and letting things work themselves out. It is fulfilling to those who charge nobly into the fray, navigating it as best they can, so as to make their life and the lives of others more meaningful.
What do you think? Leave a comment.