It’s Oscar baiting season, so I’d like to start off with my favorite so far.
There’s a great short story by Jo Ann Beard called The Fourth State of Matter (you can read it here on the New Yorker’s site). In it, she describes working at a science magazine when a gunman walked in and shot up the place. She was out of work for the day because her husband had left her. A good number of her coworkers died. Since she moved to the area and no longer had a husband, she had no one to talk to about this, despite a few people who sympathized. She uses the idea of floating in space as a metaphor for the constant turmoil, numbness, and disconnection she experiences after the event.
Gravity is gonna be remembered for its visual effects and not its story. That’s a tragedy because Gravity is one of the best movies with a message I’ve ever seen.
Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone. She’s more or less an astronaut mechanic sent to fix the Hubble telescope. Some space debris collides and tears apart her ship, as well as some of her coworkers. It shatters her reality, sending her adrift in the atmosphere as she loses all contact with anyone that can help her. The movie is about her finding her way safely back home. This entire thing, including the visuals, is a metaphor.
George Clooney plays veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky. He likes to tell stories. While floating in the majesty of space, he calls himself a bus driver, cognitively reframing that, even though this seems like an enormous and rare mission, there’s nothing special about it other than it’s happening above the earth. As things fall apart, he maintains his role as navigator for Stone, helping her adjust amid the turmoil and helping he get back home, often acting supremely casual in terrifying circumstances.
In essence, the film is a meditation/narrative on surviving trauma. The movie very clearly sympathizes with Bullock, who fights every inch to save her life.
A lot of the action in the movie is a metaphor and a sort of facsimile of cognitive processing therapy. The metaphor here is that she experiences a major trauma: people around her are killed and she’s sent adrift into the atmosphere with no guidance. Kowalsky navigates her back to the ship. She then relives these horribly traumatic moments as she jumps space craft to space craft. The tumult and agony for Stone of just trying to survive is great and costly. She loses people important to her on the way until she’s the only one left.
This isn’t just a narrative about trauma itself, but a metaphor of the greater process of trauma. Surviving trauma is similar to Stone’s story. People who survive the initial trauma often get out of it (with some help), but then begin isolating, self-preserving, withdrawing. This is when, for a number of them, they commit suicide.
It’s a tough thing to grasp for people who haven’t been through it (or seen someone go through it) and it can come off as overly simplistic and a little sappy for those that haven’t. I think that’s the case here.
At the lowest point of the film, when Stone finally finds the Russian escape pod, but can’t figure out how to get to the Chinese one, Stone begins to withdraw. She contacts a guy through a ham radio. The guy doesn’t speak her language (metaphor). Think of all of the times you were at your worst, horribly in the dumps, and you start talking to someone and they’re not even close to understanding what you’re going through at that moment. Stone goes through this and withdraws and accepts her fate, resigning to suicide.
She then talks to a mental projection of Kowalsky, who cognitively reframes this whole situation. He navigates her back to fighting for her life because life itself is worth living. She fights perilous scenes and survives. She comes back down to earth (metaphor). She takes her first step on land (metaphor).
This is the problem. Because it’s such a simple story of loss and navigating through trauma, the film comes off as overly simplistic and shallow. The panic and high stress and anxiety in the film are channeled to the viewer and it is SUPER INTENSE watching it on an enormous screen and that distracts from the film’s subtleties, yet enhances its overt (and seemingly simple) message: trauma happens, but it’s survivable and makes the person stronger.
That message was well delivered. Cuaron capitalized on every bit of action in the movie. It was meaningful. It’s one of the few truths of the human experience. It was a goddamn impressive piece of work.
It’s a shame most people aren’t seeing that, though.