Bound by gravity

Gravity: Movie directed by Alfonso Cuaron (2014).

Film is the perfect medium to capture the quality of being disoriented and untethered. Sure, it could be described in words, in a short story or novel, but neither would have me holding on to my seat, experiencing it. Gravity is best watched in a movie theater, on the big screen.

Another big visual film of another era, 2001: A Space Odyssey , had a similar effect. A space stewardess picks up two food trays, exits the galley, enters into a circular chamber, and carefully climbs “up” a wall until she appears upside down. The image hangs in the air for a split second and then flips to show us that other parts of the ship have the opposite orientation. We get two directions – “up” and “down” – and observe how meaningless they are in outer space. Cuaron multiplies this observation, expands this truth, beyond those two directions and all the way up to the infinite ones that exist in the environment of outer space.

That environment isn’t ours, the film reminds us over and over. Humans survive out there with oxygen masks, space suits, grappling hooks, metal bubbles of various sizes, and air locks. When all of those clever tricks are played out, when those supplies have been exhausted, when those barriers come down – the two alternatives are to get back to earth or to die.

Ryan Stone, our intrepid heroine, played by Sandra Bullock (whose acting is usually good enough when she’s in a good enough movie), is about as undeveloped as a character can be. She is some sort of brainiac scientist who has been sent up into space to work on something technical to do with some experiment, she has minimal training in space travel, and she is skittish and sick to her stomach – perfect as an audience surrogate. All of us imagine ourselves in her space suit. This movie is about survival, not character development.

The background is the subject, and much more interesting than the main character. Philosopher and cultural critic Slavoj Zizek, discussing another Cuaron film, explains the relationship between hero and background in a film about ideas: “… The fate of the individual hero remains a prism through which you see the background more sharply.” The background is earth and the vast emptiness that is space.

Space is where we humans are, and it’s inhospitable. Except for the earth. The earth is all that makes it not vast, not inhospitable, not hostile, not indifferent. The title is a big sign, “Hey, over here, take a look, it’s really important.” Gravity is heavy. It’s deep. It’s something serious, basic, necessary, taken for granted, overlooked. Gravity the metaphor, not just gravity the force.

Earth is the only thing we fix on from outer space. Every bearing, every bead taken on the location of the characters as they desperately move from buoy to buoy, island to island, space station to space capsule, is the earth. The earth is all any of us ever has, ever has had, ever will have – and the sight of it fills us with yearning, even sitting on earth watching it. Because without it and beyond it are … nothing.

The only time gravity itself – the force – becomes threatening is upon re-entry. Our heroine faces the twin threats of bouncing off or burning up in the earth’s atmosphere. And then she lands in a lake, another hostile environment she needs to get out of. As she struggles to the surface, a tiny frog swims by, comfortable in a habitat that would kill her were she not to return to land and air, terra firma and oxygen.

Humans are bound, by gravity, to earth. But not just to earth. We are tethered to a particular set of circumstances on earth. We are unable to create or invent anything that comes close to or that replaces fresh water we can drink, air we can breathe, food we can eat, and a range of temperatures that don’t freeze us or fry us. Those circumstances are fragile, and we take them for granted at our peril.

Habitat. Gravity reminds us that human life isn’t made possible by gadgets and clever tricks. With human habitat in peril, the quality of being disoriented and untethered is part of our daily experience of life.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *