Down to Earth: Thoughts on Cuaron’s “Gravity”

Since Alfonso Cuaron has just won the Best Director Oscar for “Gravity,” I thought I would republish this post I wrote after I’d seen the film. (Originally posted to my other blog, The Secret Commonwealth.)

WARNING: SPOILERS!

Beautiful, stunning, awe-inspiring, and adrenaline-triggering: Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is all these things.

It’s also an elegy for space and a farewell to the dream of human expansion into space. For those reared in the space age, there’s still a romanticism and a hope that our future and our evolution (read: our transcendence) lies in outer space. That age is over. NASA’s shuttles are grounded and there are no public plans for the next step. Robots on Mars are interesting, but don’t engage our full imaginative faculties like a manned mission.

Gravity is the final trip. Here it all goes to hell. The trigger event — curiously synchronous to the NSA story burning through the headlines when the film was released — is a Russian missile destroying one of that country’s spy satellites, to keep it out of other hands. This sets off a chain reaction that destroys everything — the last shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Chinese space station, along with scores of communication satellites. All our footholds in space are destroyed, as well as our worldwide communications net. (Presumably, some satellites in lower orbits remain, but the metaphor here is that spying has destroyed that dream, too — no more frontier Internet freedom.)

Also gone, drifting away from us slowly, just like the old astronauts who are dying one by one, each year of old age (Scott Carpenter just the day before I wrote this), is George Clooney’s character. The last astronaut, a Captain Kirk ladies’ man figure. With him go our dreams of new frontiers.

Sandra Bullock doesn’t actually survive — not as the Dr. Stone she was at the start of the film. She undergoes a rebirth. When she enters the ISS and sheds her space suit, she curls into a fetal position, complete with a hose behind her giving the impression of an umbilical cord. But unlike the Star Fetus in 2001: A Space Odyssey, who promised a birth into some new and transcendent form, Bullock’s fetal form is destined not Up but Down.

After floating for a blissful time, she comes to and shoots through the tight birth canal of the station to finally eject from the womb into the cradling arms of her new mother — the Russian Soyuz capsule. (Hey, didn’t they start this whole mess in the first place?)

But her infancy is short-lived. Her new mother — the machine — is cold and non-nurturing. Indeed, she’s actually dead in space. Bullock can’t survive here, emotionally or physically. She prepares to die but is jolted back to life by the ghost of the space age. As we all know from Apollo 13, the superpower of the astronaut is ingenuity-in-crisis. George Clooney’s shade (her fantasy of his return) clues Bullock in on what she needs to do: jury rig the tech, humanize it through the human faculty of imagination and foresight. He is able to literally point her in the right direction and give her the kick she needs to leave this already-dead substitute mother.

Her new destination, her last hope, is in Descent, falling from the stars, an Icarus whose humility promises to deliver her home: the Chinese space station and its capsule. It is heating up as it begins re-entry, and she must use a fire extinguisher to reach it. Waiting in her escape capsule is the smiling face of the Buddha, a sign that no matter what happens now, she has achieved at least a degree of peace with herself, and a reminder to let go of attachments to the past.

She falls and sinks into the ocean, but is nearly drowned by her old skin. She must once more shed her astronaut self — her space suit — to escape its weight (the pull of the past, those wonderful dreams of breaking free from this fragile globe to Find the Father) and emerge, free, into the air, in the arms of the real mother. Not a spiteful, jealous mother angry that her children would try to leave her, but a patient, long-suffering, beautiful (especially when seen from space as the sun rises), life-giving Great Mother, tolerant of all her children’s dreams and folly.

Bullock slowly, unsteadily, regains her legs, readjusting to gravity, standing on Earth once more, as the only home where she — and we — can possibly live in an age where the skies are now closed to us, where we are now and forever within gravity’s pull.

UPDATE:

I posted a bit hastily; I feel I’d be remiss to not elaborate a bit on the motherhood theme as it concerns Bullock’s character directly, since it is the emotional core of the film.

Bullock has been betrayed by gravity — it murdered her child. Her daughter fell down and hit her head and died.

Now, gravity is the force of attraction exerted by the earth, the Great Mother, in her embrace of her children. This is the dark side of the mother. Bullock freezes up inside and seeks to escape the mother’s embrace in space, where the temperature matches that of her heart and where she can forget her own motherhood. But as she discovers, and as the film specifically tells us in text at the very start, nothing can live in space. Life belongs below, on Earth.

Bullock has to reconcile her mother’s grief with her need for life and the Great Mother.

UPDATE 2:

My brother brought this to my attention: Bullock’s barking like a dog in her lonely capsule is an homage to poor little Laika, the first dog in space, who died drifting away just as Bullock seemed fated to do. (Or so we were told for years. It was revealed later that she died within hours of overheating, a fate Bullock also escapes.)

It always made me sad that they’d launch Laika up but there without a way to get her back down. The Old Yeller of the space age.

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