I never go to the movies anymore, so I didn't see Gravity until it came out on pay-per-view yesterday. I was tremendously impressed with this film. It's a bravura tour de force of technical skill and dramatic tension. But beyond all that, I felt it had a strongly spiritual – even mystical – message, which I wasn't expecting from a generally realistic movie about outer space.
To explain what I mean about the mystical message, I have to reveal key plot points. I don't like to do this, because I hate spoilers. So I am hereby advising you not to continue reading this post if you have any intention whatsoever of seeing Gravity. And I do recommend seeing it. You can always come back and read this post later.
Just to be clear, in what follows there are big-time S P O I L E R S.
If you're still with me, I assume you have already seen the film or have no intention of ever doing so.
Gravity centers on two astronauts, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). Incidentally, in a film that makes many nods to Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's probably not a coincidence that the two main characters have names beginning with S and K, Kubrick's initials. And who is the most famous Kowalski in movie history? That would be Stanley Kowalski, the Marlon Brando character in A Streetcar Named Desire. I'm pretty sure that both the initials and the Kowalski name are a tip of the hat to the pioneering filmmaker whose vision made subsequent space movies like this one imaginable.
But I digress. The film begins when a cloud of debris destroys an orbiting space shuttle, killing most of its crew. Only Stone and Kowalski are left, and they become separated. Kowalski drifts off into space, apparently never to be recovered. Stone manages to get aboard a Soyuz escape capsule on the International Space Station. After heroic efforts not only to board the station but to disentangle the capsule from its prematurely deployed parachute, Stone discovers that the capsule is out of fuel; all her effort has been in vain; she is hopelessly stranded. With no options left, she dials down the lighting, turns off the oxygen, and prepares to drift off into unconsciousness and death.
She is startled awake by raps on the capsule's door. Kowalski has returned. He wrests the door open and enters the capsule, saying cryptically that he got some extra juice for his battery -- "It's a hell of a story." Stone tells him the capsule is marooned for lack of fuel. Kowalski takes this news in stride, saying immediately that there's another option – they can use the landing jets as a form of propulsion. When Stone demurs, he asks if she wants to live or if she would prefer to simply give up and die. It's already been established that Stone lives a lonely, empty life on earth, still mourning the loss of her four-year-old daughter in a freak accident some years earlier. Kowalski suggests that maybe she would prefer to remain cocooned in the emptiness and alonenesss of space, where nobody can hurt her. But if she decides to go on living, she has to commit to it fully and go all out.
Stone takes this in. When she turns to answer, Kowalski is gone.
You see, he was never there at all. At least not physically. The whole encounter was, in conventional terms, a hallucination. Earlier in the film it was noted that low oxygen levels can bring about lightheadedness and confusion. It appears that Stone, suffering from hypoxia, imagined the episode and dredged up the landing-jet idea from her subconscious.
And yet ...
Stone herself apparently doesn't think so. Though she has already said she's never prayed in her life, suddenly she finds herself directing what can only be called a prayer to Kowalski. She asks him to give her deceased daughter a message when he meets her. At the conclusion of her plea, she asks for his answer, hesitates for a beat, and then says, smiling, "Roger that."
Moreover, when she sets to work activating the landing jets, she says "Wow, you're one clever son of a bitch, Matt." Clearly she's still giving him credit for the idea. And by this point, having turned the oxygen back on, she isn't suffering from hypoxia anymore.
Another struggle follows, in which Stone uses the Soyuz to access a second space station, from which she will make her descent to Earth on a Chinese capsule. This new capsule is in bad condition, buffeted by another round of debris and already starting to burn up as it touches the atmosphere. The odds are against her. Even so, her attitude is altogether different from the panicked desperation we saw earlier. Now she seems almost to revel in the challenge. Talking to an offline Mission Control, but really talking to herself, she says that in the next ten minutes she will either land in one piece or burn up on reentry. "No harm, no foul. Either way, it'll be a hell of a ride."
From seeing life as a tragedy -- the perspective engendered by the death of her daughter -- Stone has gone to seeing it as an adventure. Remember Kowalski's words after entering the capsule, when he was asked how he got there. "It's a hell of a story," he answers cheerfully. If he's not a hallucination, but a visitor from the next life, then he got to the capsule by dying ... and evidently he found it a memorable and happy experience, another great story in the never-ending series of personal anecdotes he loves to relate.
Not only does he find death liberating, but Stone finds herself liberated, as well. If death is only a transition and not to be feared, then the loss of her daughter is only temporary, and not a sufficient reason to throw away the rest of her life in grief and solitude. Life, seen as a small part of a wider spectrum, loses its terrors and becomes an adventure. Whatever happens, it's no harm, no foul -- just a hell of a ride.
Stone makes it back. At the end, clutching the wet soil of a desert lake (actually Arizona's Lake Powell), she says softly, "Thank you." The thanks would appear to be directed to Kowalski, or to some higher power that put her in touch with Kowalski's wisdom at the crucial moment.
Gravity could be seen as simply an action film utilizing the latest special effects magic to thrill the audience. And it is that. But it's something more. Like 2001, its underrated sequel 2010, and Carl Sagan's Contact, Gravity uses outer space to reach for inner truths.
It's a great film - and one hell of a ride.