Gravity – How Might Things Begin Again?

I saw Gravity earlier on this week, the much-heralded escape-from-space flick starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. But mostly Sandra Bullock. The problem with any Clooney picture is that his voice is now for me inextricably connected to the Fantastic Mr Wes Anderson version of Fantastic Mr Fox, so Gravity, with Clooney’s wise-cracking astronaut, does kind of sound like Mr Fox in Space.

It is, however, visually stunning. I don’t say this lightly, but you definitely want to see this in 3D. I have literally no idea how they made this film (but some hints here). It looks brilliant, the zero-gravity special effects are seamless, and the ‘mood’ of space wonderfully evoked and imagined. The plot is… well, sort of plausible. And sort of not. But hey, it’s a thriller, so the artistic license is fully granted. Star Wars this isn’t, thankfully – so we do get a proper sense of the empty coldness of space, rather than sounds and explosions that pepper Lucas’ outings. As a quick non-spoiler sketch: Dr Ryan Stone (played by Bullock) is on her first mission on the Space Shuttle Explorer to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. The film opens with her on a space-walk with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (Clooney) who is due to return to earth for the last time. Things then go wrong… very wrong…

For those who’ve not seen it I’d say make time to because it carries some huge themes. In short: Earth is Screwed Because We Loaded the Environment with TechnoJunk – Sod The Rest, How Can the US Survive and Begin Again?

Snappy, huh?

For those who have seen the film, I wanted to explore below what I mean by that, tongue sort of in cheek. Big Spoiler Alert here – don’t read on if you don’t want to know major plot points.

First off, the name is clearly important. It’s not called Zero Gravity. Why? Because this is a space film that is all about Earth. Earth is the silent, looming backdrop to the whole picture. It spins serenely – weather systems develop, cities and oceans pass by – and yet it remains mute. Very early on in the film all communication with Earth is lost, but this only works to heighten the desperation the protagonists feel to get back there. They spin out of control high above in a place with no orientation, no up or down or north or south, and all they want to do is return to the ground. To gravity. To escape weightlessness and feel the natural, comforting heaviness of solid ground.

Stone does make it back to earth, and it’s this ending – this achievement of a return to gravity – that is so important. Stone’s module crashes into a deserted lake surrounded by verdant mountains. She struggles to get to land and crawls up the beach. What we are seeing here is a complete re-enactment of human development.

– First, the amphibian we see swimming underwater while Stone struggles and nearly drowns.

– Next, her gasping, pulling herself up the sand, her legs not functioning.

– Then her getting on all fours as she crawls for a few yards

– Finally, becoming biped, she stands.

It seems to me that this final scene shows Gravity to be a creation myth. It is a story not about how things began, but how they might begin again.

Why do things need to begin again? The ‘inciting incident’ which precipitates the death-before-rebirth is a failed downing of a satellite by a Russian missile. The debris causes a chain reaction: space-junk smashing into other satellites at 20,000mph causing more space junk… all of which encircles the earth and destroys all communication satellites. This is a technological disaster born out of a failure to manage our waste. The waste problem has got so bad, even space is too full of junk for us to be safe. (This is not fiction, by the way, this is how things are up there.)

Gravity is thus a creation myth rooted in environment concerns which have come to a head through technological anxiety. This disaster is upon us. How can we survive? How can we get through this and make a fresh start?

More accurately, how can the USA get through? Because, let’s be clear, this is a big Hollywood ideological statement. It is a US Shuttle that is doing grand work on the Hubble Space telescope (no matter that the US currently has reusable space vehicle, and that currently it is India and China who are leading the space race in many ways.) An Indian astronaut is on the mission with Clooney and Bullock, but he quickly gets his face removed.


Once the disaster strikes we enter a time of apocalypse, a time of death before new life can come. Clooney and Bullock survive, but Clooney only does so for a short time. This is really interesting, because what it signifies is the death of the old patriarchal order. The ‘Good Ol’ Boy’ is not going to be the saviour. Our protagonist is a woman who is smart, trembling and hates country music.

Message: if America is to survive, it has to shed the cowboy way of doing things and embrace the feminine.

Once Clooney dies, Bullock is on her own. But she has been given a plan by him: get to the International Space Station and use a Russian Soyuz capsule to make it to the Chinese Space Station, from where she can get a capsule home. In short: the ISS is deserted, and through a series of mishaps Bullock sends it down in flames. Reaching the Chinese ship she finds that it is gradually lowering its orbit, but she manages to get into the capsule and survive the heat of re-entry, while the rest of the ship is burned to nothing.

Message: if the international community is screwed by our attempts to be reborn, then sorry but that’s collateral. And as for China, we will ride your wave to safety, using your technology, but we’ll let you get flamed in the process.

As a ‘creation myth’ Gravity is thus a troubling message from Hollywood: in our struggle to survive, to reach a new dawn for humanity, we will bring down international systems and ruthlessly ride the Chinese, even if this means we are sole survivors.

That’s all tongue in cheek in a way, but I think this is one of those brilliant films where Hollywood starts with fantastic intentions and then ends up saying something far more revealing.

Earth is what we have. It is our home. But it is the home for the whole of humanity, not just a liberal American elite – however much they have embraced femininity. What was particularly poignant was watching this as Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. There would be no sound of those winds in space, up among the incredible technology, up beyond the clouds. America has long ruled in space, but it is only with international cooperation that the fate of Earth can be changed. The message of Haiyan – loud and ferocious – is that there is terrible trouble ahead. The environmental disaster hinted at in Gravity is really rooted on Earth, and it is not among the ‘white’ astronaut elite but in the majority non-white developing world where the human and ecological cost is going to be astronomical.

Yes, we need America to lose the cowboy, gun-toting masculine pioneer ideology. But we need it to do so in affirmation of the whole of humanity, not as a strategy to ride the coming environmental apocalypse in order to lead humanity out from the waters and into new life again.


Theme tune for this post: Gil Scott Heron: ‘Whitey on the Moon.’


2 responses to “Gravity – How Might Things Begin Again?”

  1. Patrick Marshall

    Great analysis of the bigger picture themes, which I did not catch at all when I saw it. Mostly because I saw this story as a more personal one: the story of Ryan losing a child and learning how to live again. When she emerged from the water at the end, I got that she was being reborn (we start getting images pointing us toward that theme when she enters the space station, removes her space suit, and goes into a fetal position…very “2001” Starchild-esque). I just saw that as she was learning how to live on the earth again with the gravity (so to speak) of this loss in her life. She had a choice to give up and dwell forever in the dark solitude of her grief (mirrored on earth in her story of driving around by herself all night after work) or to find a way to keep living. The turning point coming when Clooney “appears” in the pod with her and says, “You have to learn to let go.”

  2. That’s a great reading too… A really rich film! Tempted to go again, perhaps IMAX.