Being lost in space has always been among the most horrific of thoughts to me, and I think this is a common sentiment, which explains the weightiness of Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón’s film Gravity. While I grew up heroizing astronauts, and the film does serve as an ode to the just-ended space shuttle era, I was initially drawn to go see it just because of the Pärt soundtrack featured in the preview. But though I don’t think Spiegel im Spiegel made it into the film, I forgot to notice—the suspense of the film feels like the suspension in zero gravity experienced by the characters. But perhaps a better word to describe it is weighty, that is, grave, full of gravitas.
It is a survival story taking place in orbit, in space. Along with the astronauts, the viewer gets no terrestrial relief, no flashback scenes to life on earth or shots of mission control (the voice of which is Ed Harris’, remember Apollo 13?). The camera is stranded in the dark vastness too. It is a strange world, a strange environment for a human being to occupy (though not a sci-fi sort of strange—still very real), which, at least for me, brings up a lot of questions about being human, and how that is tied to dwelling on the earth. There is even some dialogue about afterlife, and perhaps a kind of brush with it, which adds to such questions the issue of the significance of incarnation. The Greek’s, or at least the Neoplatonists, associated the heavens with the realm of ideals, the forms beyond the physical, to which the human soul, trapped in the body on earth, aspires. Yet in the film, humanness is somewhat disturbed and hard to recognize in such a celestial setting, and the viewer longs for the earth nearly as much as the characters do, however beautiful the view may be.
As a survival story, Gravity gets its gravitas in the characters’ confrontation with death, an experience which puts life into perspective, sorting what matters from what doesn’t ultimately matter. For instance, astronaut Stone barking in an escape pod along with dogs in Asia over the radio does not even seem weird, because in that situation a real need, for familiarity say, takes precedence over composure. Nor does her clichéd words for her deceased daughter feel lacking in depth, because in that situation the need for originality takes a backseat to authenticity. When Stone truly comes to terms with death, it is accompanied by a sort of affirmation of a life after death, which, however simplistic her version, is an effect of the purging realness of such situations. In contrast, astronaut Kowalski (Clooney) faces the situation with humor, avoiding the severity of it, and thus not really facing it at all. The film’s capturing of the gravity of their situation is true to life.