With Gravity (dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 2013), we see the first significant deviation in the astronoetic sequence I’ve selected. Unlike in both 2001: A Space Odessy (1968) and Contact (1997), space doesn’t figure as an ambiguous Outside, a primal encounter with which proves comforting, transformative, or uplifting. To the contrary, in Gravity, as the opening subtitles starkly inform us: “Life in space is impossible.” The film as a whole elaborates upon this. From the very start, the film telegraphs one of its central thematics, namely, that space is an inhumane, terrifying place, totally indifferent to human concerns or scales.
The plot of the film is simple. Biomedical engineer Dr. Ryan Stone is aboard the Explorer for her first space mission, accompanied by veteran astronaut Matthew Kowalski. After an orbital satellite is destroyed, the debris initiates a chain reaction of additional debris that promptly destroys the Explorer, killing everyone except for Stone and Kowalski. Kowalski rescues Stone after they both become detached, and they spacewalk to the International Space Station (ISS). On the way, the film reveals that Stone once had a daughter, who died in an abrupt accident. When they reach the ISS, Kowalski is also lost. After a catastrophic fire, Stone makes her way in a Soyuz module toward a Chinese space station in the distance. On the way, she nearly gives up on returning to Earth while speaking with an Eskimo-Aleutian ham radio operator, but a dream of Kowalski’s return forces her to confront her despair. She then marshals her efforts to enter the Chinese station and uses its escape pod to return to Earth’s surface.
The principal architectonic of the film is the almost overbearing parallel between Stone’s emotional and physical journeys. During the first two thirds of the film, Stone exists in a state of literal and symbolic detachment, lost both in her inability to grieve and in space. She is unable to grieve because her response to the death of her daughter is to flee from the trauma – thereby paradoxically holding the trauma in suspended animation – rather than to confront or process it. “I was driving when I got the call,” Stone says. “So that’s what I do. I wake up, I go to work, and I just drive.” The fact of her flight from this trauma is so fundamental that it separates her from the terrestrial altogether. When Kowalski asks her what she likes best about being in space, Stone replies, “The silence. I could get used to it.” Of course, underlying Stone’s emotional isolation is a desperate need to reconnect with the human condition. Much of the film entails Stone’s frantic attempts to make contact with other human beings: with Kowalski, with Houston, with anyone who might be listening down below.
At first, her cries for communication appear as calls for technical aid, but it’s difficult to avoid the realization that what Stone really needs is to grieve.
Consider the moment when Stone, foot tangled in a flimsy rope, struggles to persuade Kowalski not to let go of his tether.
Kowalski: You have to let go.
Stone: You’re not going anywhere.
Kowalski: It’s not up to you.
On the surface, their concerns are directly practical. If Kowalski does not let go, both of them will be lost in the void of space. However, the sequence of dialogue also speaks to Stone’s emotional journey. Her inability to let go, to acknowledge her lack of control over life and death that characterizes the human condition, has driven her into the most inhospitable of places. She is both manic and withdrawn, detethered (indeed, it is difficult to ignore the repeated line of dialogue: “Dr. Stone is detached! Dr. Stone is detached!”). There’s also a very striking scene immediately after Stone makes it inside the ISS where she draws herself into a fetal position – a very different kind of “star child” than the one we famously find in 2001, this time helpless and unformed.
After navigating the hostile environment of what is materially the site of a catastrophic accident (paralleling the accidental nature of her daughter’s death), Stone arrives at her zero point.
This takes place in the Soyuz, when Stone makes radio contact with an unidentified speaker of an Eskimo-Aleutian language. They cannot speak comprehensibly to each other, but Stone and the radio operator forge a human connection by imitating the barking of dogs. He sings her a lullaby, allowing her to hear the sounds of his child (contrast the scene with HAL’s final performance of “Daisy Bell” prior to his deactivation). At this point, out of fuel, Stone in the depths of despair, attempts to commit suicide by turning off the oxygen. The film’s constant visual motif of inversion, or “upside-downness” – previously, we see this motif occur, for example, during Stone’s disclosure of the death of her daughter – appears most strikingly here in the nearly perfect orb of Stone’s floating tear. The contours and orientation of human life become inverted in the hostile void.
After Stone dreams or imagines Kowalski’s return, she overcomes her despair, letting go of the hole of her daughter’s loss and seeking a return to earthly conditions. Kowalski’s imago here plays a very specific role. On the one hand, he exposes the falsity of Stone’s hope that anyone else will be able to save her. On the other, he vocalizes the seductive appeal of committing oneself to the void entirely. In so doing, he makes Stone’s desire for death external and explicit. In other words, letting go of the former displacement (i.e., the hope of rescue) enables Stone to overcome the latter drive or pull (i.e., toward death, suicide). When Stone abandons the Soyuz and makes her way haphazardly to the Chinese station, using a fire extinguisher for propulsion, it’s no coincidence that the action occurs just as a sunrise breaks over the dark earth.
During her descent through the atmosphere, Stone’s radio picks up a mélange of signals, a collage of music, news, and voices that indicate her return from the inky, silent blackness of the Outside back into the sphere of human meaning. Contrast reentry into this auditory envelope with the cacophonous penumbra that swathes the solar system at the very start of Contact, where the movement of the camera also differs – the camera’s eye in this latter film ostensibly withdraws into the depths of space (only to conclude its journey in Dr. Arroway’s eye) while Dr. Stone descends down into the tumult. The fire of reentry into the world of human concerns licks at her pod, threatening to shake it to pieces. Grief is not a process one is guaranteed to survive. When it lands – veritably as if in Darwin’s warm pond – Stone must exert herself one last time.
This time, she ascends through the green, vital murk, following the whole trajectory of evolution from the depths of primordial soup where life originates – up, up, up toward the sun. There, she thrashes free of her spacesuit, swimming to the surface in motions paralleling the frog that passes her by. On the sandy shore, she crawls on her belly before, trembling, she ascends further onto all fours, onto her feet, finally standing upright, the camera looking up, up, up at Stone, triumphantly alive and indefatigably human.
As with all of the films I’ve assembled here, Gravity poses an argument within the domain of astronoetics. For the film, the human condition is resolutely tellurian or terrestrial. We are earthly creatures first and foremost, and while the Outside may tolerate brief incursions, it does not welcome them. (It would be intriguing to compare elements of Gravity with Cordwainer Smith’s famous short story “Scanners Live in Vain” , in which the “First Effect” of human space travel consists in what Smith calls the “Great Pain of Space,” necessitating that spacefaring crews have their brains damaged so as to expunge all human feeling. Contrast this in turn with the Guild Navigators in Frank Herbert’s Dune series (1965-1985), who exist as drugged-out worm-like posthumans confined to spice-saturated tanks, where they dream safe passage for spaceships, or even the astropaths of Warhammer 40,000, who perform a similar function: in all cases, the baseform human is maladapted to space travel.) There is a humanism here, then, but one which rejects the transformative paternalism of 2001 and Contact. In Gravity, gravity always wins: either return to the terrestrial center as part of your journey of reconciliation – with the Earth, with life, loss, the past, the trauma of finite selfhood – or else be destroyed by your attempt to escape it. Within the film’s field of meaning, nothing could be worse than such an escape, for it would be nothing more than a ceaseless, oscillating trajectory into the inhuman Outside, into infinite darkness.
* An earlier version of this essay appeared on Michael Uhall’s personal blog (link).