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‘Gravity’ is about depression and rebirth

[This post will contain spoilers for Gravity.]

I didn’t respect Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity enough when it was first released. In my initial assessment (podcast review here) I found it to be a technical marvel and a masterpiece of suspenseful sci-fi filmmaking. But I felt let down by the paper-thin characters and the usage of well-worn sci-fi tropes, like George Clooney’s Matt Kowalski needing to explain basic scientific concepts to Sandra Bullock’s inexperienced astronaut Ryan Stone.

I revisited Gravity in 3D yesterday at the Seattle Cinerama (currently in the process of hosting a trilogy of impressive film festivals) and my respect for the film has grown immensely in the intervening years. I’m still mildly bothered by some of the film’s scientific inaccuracies, but the Ryan Stone character’s journey really worked for me this time. Bullock is in every shot of this film and gives it her all as a grieving mother who has lost the will to go on. The scene when she mistakenly decides she has no chance of making it back home alive and makes peace with her own inevitable death is heartbreaking. During Bullock’s superlative performance (seemingly all performed in a single take), the camera focuses on her tears floating in the air, yet another in a long list of signs that the universe can be indifferent to humanity’s suffering.

It’s a somewhat common trope films when characters lose the will to live, then are reinvigorated when faced with the prospect of death. Gravity is special because, even as it succeeds as a sci-fi thriller, the entire film can be read as an allegory for depression. One Redditor has actually done a good job of fleshing out the metaphor in its entirety.

I’m not sure the metaphor needs to be that literal for me, but on this viewing I was struck by Kowalski’s imagined speech to Stone late in the film:

I get it, it’s nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights… and just close your eyes and tune out everybody. There’s nobody up here that can hurt you. It’s safe. I mean, what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. Doesn’t get any rougher than that. But still, it’s a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life. […] Hey, Ryan? It’s time to go home.

The movie does a great job capturing the duality of space, which overall feels terrifying and uninhabitable. But space is also at an intoxicating and peaceful remove from the concerns of life on Earth. Emerging from the depths of space becomes Stone’s rebirth in the film.

In interviews, Cuaron has also nodded to the idea that the film is about rebirth:

We have a character that is drifting metaphorical and literally, drifting towards the void. A victim of their own inertia. Getting farther and farther away from Earth where life and human connections are. And probably she was like that when she was on planet Earth, before leaving for the mission. It’s a character who lives in her own bubble. And she has to shred that skin to start learning at the end. This is a character who we stick in the ground, again, and learns how to walk. Space already lends itself to all these metaphorical possibilities. I think rebirth in many ways is part of the journey for everybody, not only every human in Earth, but it’s also the journey of great characters. Great characters in literature or in cinema they go through the stages of rebirth and of a new understanding.

It’s amazing that the film is able to convey all this emotion without the audience ever having the chance to meet Stone’s child — she’s only ever spoken about as an offscreen character. Yet another one of the movie’s many triumphs (it also won 7 Oscars).

One last thing: Seeing this movie in Dolby Atmos using a 4K laser projector capable of 60,000 lumens really destroyed me. It gave me an awe of our planet and of our universe that only a medium like cinema is capable of. If you have the chance to revisit Gravity theatrically, do it.

Here are some interesting things I’ve been reading this week: