[REVIEW] Transcending ‘Gravity’: The Metaphor Behind the Movie

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**LIGHT SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen Gravity yet, I highly suggest you do so before you read my or anyone else’s reactions. (And if ever a film has been made that merits the IMAX 3D format, this is it. If you have access to a true IMAX theatre, the extra few dollars are more than worth it.) With a very simple and clear-cut surface narrative, Gravity is probably best viewed with as little preconception and foreknowledge as possible. I’ll try to shy away from story specifics with vagueness where feasible, but it would be nearly impossible to circumvent even the implication of certain outcomes. See the movie first—I repeat, see this movie—then see if you can resist jumping into the conversation about it.**

                                                                             

More than a film, Gravity is an experience. Before the ending credits roll, you marvel at the incredible beauty of our planet, you gasp for breath as your oxygen runs low, and you feel the lurch in your stomach as the last handhold separating you from the cold emptiness of space threatens to slip from your grasp. Virtually flawless special effects and Alfonso Cuarón’s mind-bogglingly long uncut takes (a la Children of Men) convince you every moment of it is real. And Sandra Bullock’s affecting performance grounds you in the movie’s human element, so the action and unbelievably believable set pieces never seem like gratuitous eye candy. This combination of elements makes for an incredibly tense ride; I don’t remember feeling so nerve-wracked since my first viewing of Nolan’s The Dark Knight. Gravity as the story of a human fight for survival is nigh perfect, and the movie is undeniably a technical milestone. Ultimately, though, none of those things explain why Gravity still haunts me days after I saw it.

Taken at face value, Gravity’s plot is about as straightforward and uncomplicated as it could possibly be. Absorbing as the overall experience is, the story itself is underwhelming in its minimalism. However, this über-simplicity is calculated and intentional because the real power of Gravity’s story is metaphorical. From the opening captions that stress the hostility of space toward sound and breath and life to the potent evocation of biological evolution in the closing shots, the film has something to say about the value of and struggle that is life on this planet. I left the theatre furiously trying to process a multitude of suggestive visual cues and anxious to discuss them with someone else in a similarly contemplative mood (something I’m still waiting for the opportunity to do).

After stewing over the movie for a day or so, I was curious to see how much of what I was reading in to the film had been intended directorially. Apparently, the endless void of space as a metaphorical backdrop is an incredibly flexible storytelling tool. It turns out, based on the few interviews with Cuarón I browsed on YouTube, that the metaphor I had been assuming was quite distinct from the one by which he and his son had been operating during the writing and production of Gravity. For Cuarón (as far as I can tell), the story is first and foremost about the personal choice each human being makes between life and death, between actively and meaningfully engaging with the world as a unique individual and succumbing to the despair and apathy that often accompany an awareness of the difficulty and precariousness of existence. That dichotomy is represented in the film most noticeably by the ubiquitous juxtaposition of the vibrant light of earth with the dark desolation of space, the protagonists orbiting somewhere between. Under this paradigm, the space debris causing so many complications in the story signifies the adversity every person faces in life. Each impediment is either surmounted, or it becomes another chain pulling one down in submission to death.

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Cuarón also talks about the necessity for philosophical rebirth as a fundamental step on the journey toward intentional living. The womb-like structures Bullock’s character inhabits over the course of the movie are a perpetual reminder of the transformation she is undergoing. One gorgeous shot in particular—that of Bullock floating in a fetal position, backlit, a stray tether suggesting umbilical—references this idea directly and seems destined to become a cinematic icon. The end of the film sees the culmination of the character’s personal revolution; in her efforts to get her head out of the clouds and her feet on the ground, so to speak, she displays a deliberateness and purposefulness one cannot imagine from the nervous hysteric as which she begins.

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Influenced no doubt by my regular preoccupation with the broader questions of human existence (e.g., who we are, why we’re here, etc.), I mostly overlooked this primarily personal dimension of the story. What I took away from Gravity was a much more comprehensive vision of the miracle of life on a cosmic scale. The movie begins with the main characters floating in orbit, stand-ins for life on earth as a whole. There at the edge of space, in a universe utterly inimical to biology, a universe characterized by extremes of temperature and a complete lack of respirable atmosphere, life has carved a niche for itself. Defying expectations, it is breathing and singing in an environment that by all rights should engender nothing but silence and death.

However, life’s current status is hard-fought, and every foothold it’s claimed has been a mad scramble against a reality seemingly bent on its destruction. Space debris is a constant threat, and its own habitat sometimes turns against it with tremors and fire. Sheer tenacity and will to power may have been enough to enable it to endure such hazards and thrive on its own dog-eat-dog world, but something different is required when the instinct to survive is compromised by a face-to-face encounter with the indifferent abyss. How does life persevere when it loses hope? Gravity’s answer: compassion. Trust. Self-sacrifice. The inspiration that comes through personal attachment to other beings. Dare I say faith and love? A new sort of evolution that transcends the survival of the fittest and points us toward a higher way of being and knowing.

These themes bring to mind Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (on which Gravity‘s cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, also worked). Its depiction of the struggle between the “way of nature” and the “way of grace” presents a similar proposition: namely, that every instance of life, on one level or another, is making a choice between the two in each moment—between the selfish desire for dominance and control and a selfless posture of acceptance and generosity. Indeed, it suggests that tug-of-war playing out on a cosmic level, creation as a whole destined to slough its entropic skin for a transformed order of deathlessness and reconciliation.

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)

The religious imagery in Gravity—an Orthodox Christian icon, a Buddha statuette—reinforces these sorts of ideas. The structures on which we observe the symbols are the wombs of Bullock’s character’s rebirth, her sanctuaries from a hostile cosmos, the crucibles of her refinement. It is through her experiences with them that she moves toward a more fully realized state of being, one grounded in her acceptance of the contingency of life. The undeniable role of religion in giving voice and substance to the human yearning for transcendence is acknowledged without disregarding the ambiguity of its ultimate value. Is there significance in the fact that, while the representative structures shepherd her on her way and provide her respite, both must be abandoned in the end? (On a slightly different tack, is there an implication behind the order in which the images appear?)

Having explored the complexity of life in the universe, its trajectory and perhaps its destiny, Gravity ends with a simple celebration of the wondrous mystery that it is at all. A celestial explosion litters a glowing world with stellar viscera, sowing seeds of life that blossom in the watery depths before washing ashore and straining steadily upright. It is a beautiful picture of our kinship with the cosmos at large. As Carl Sagan famously said, “We’re made of star stuff.” Gravity suggests, in my humble opinion, that whatever more we can and may be is still left for us to discover.

                                                                             

Articulating my reaction to Gravity proved to be a bit more challenging than I anticipated. Did you find yourself equally discomfited? What did you take away from the film apart from its thrills?

[UPDATE] I recently stumbled across an essay I’d highly recommend if you appreciated the more reflective approach to Gravity in this review. Donovan Schaefer at the Bulletin for the Study of Religion posted an insightful exploration of the film as a sort of feminist counterpoint to the masculine-defined transcendence of Kubrick’s 2001. Well worth a read.

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10 thoughts on “[REVIEW] Transcending ‘Gravity’: The Metaphor Behind the Movie

  1. stevekimes says:

    Excellent. I think that giving the film a broad metaphor (about all human experience) rather than specifically about Bullock’s grief is brilliant of Cuaron, and gives the film universal appeal. However, I think that the few details we have of Bullock’s background– the death of her child, the long hours of work and driving– actually take away from that universal connection, and make it more her story than ours. I still think that the takeaway of the film is how it is we who are having this experience, and we who are making the choices between life and death. But it is easy to lock onto these details and miss the point.

    Still, your analysis is top notch, and I recommend it.

    • Semigeekly says:

      Thanks for the feedback! While those specific details might be distracting at first blush, I think they ultimately serve to establish on a personal level the hopelessness and lack of volition with which Bullock’s character struggles and for which her ordeal in orbit becomes a direct metaphor. They provide a clear ground for the current of the character’s arc.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Even knowing the Lubezki connection between Gravity and Tree of Life, I would have never thought to have compared them thematically. Interesting read.

  3. Vijaya Dar says:

    I read your comment to my review of the film and after having read this review, it seems appropriate to leave my response here. I am not surprised you found it strenuous to articulate your reaction to the film. It actually takes you through a wringer, the visuals, the metaphors, the various hints scattered all over the narrative, compel you to introspect and think about the film as more than a story. As you have rightly written, Gravity is an experience and one’s response to it very much depends on how much one’s spirit has evolved, to borrow an idea from Sri Aurobindo Ghosh. Thanks for sharing your review with me. After all the pangs of birth it must have given you, the articulation is wonderfully done.

    • Semigeekly says:

      I appreciate the kind words! There is something terribly bold about Gravity and the way its visceral experience directly embodies its ideas rather than offering them up as abstract concepts for contemplation. The link I’ve posted in the update at the end of my review above made a lot of sense of this aspect of the film for me.

      • Vijaya Dar says:

        In Advaita Vedanta there is this concept of Free Will and Predetermination, that can be called Freedom from Will. As long as we keep identifying ourselves with the body, we will continue to have the illusion of beimg free to determine our actions. But when we realize our true Self, as that Supreme Consciousness that resides nowhere but in Itself, we understand that there is no such thing as Will or Free Will. Once that realization dawns there is nothing one would want and therefore there would be no need to act. To be in the Self one does not have to do anything. One has just to be! This is exactly what happens to Dr. Stone. The moment she discovers that there was no fuel in the Russian escape pod, she gives in to utter despair and exercises her Will to extinguish her breath by switching off the supply of oxygen. It is then that realization dawns in the form of the illusory Kowalski who appears from nowhere into her consciousness and removes her fear and doubts by making her realize her true Self. It is a moot question as to Who actually returned to the Earth; the Dr. Stone whose physical manifestation we saw or her true Self? When you realize your own Self, no doubts persist, and her thanks towards the end are directed towards that Supreme Consciousness that pervades the entire cosmos. I am not sure if I am making any sense, but this movie has had a profound effect on me, and the more I dwell upon it, the more layers of meaning I uncover.

  4. Vijaya Dar says:

    The comparison with Kubrick’s 2001, however, felt a bit too laboured and hard to accept. It feels like a contrived analysis, somewhat like a body being forced to fit into a garment that was stitched without measurements. Kubrick’s 2001 is like Orwell’s 1984 compared to Cuarron’s Gravity which is like Aurobindo Ghose’s Life Divine. I prefer the much simpler analysis done by you.

  5. I’m divided on my opinion, and your impression, of the film. On one hand it invoked almost all of the metaphorical dimensions that you cover. Oddly, immediately following the experience of seeing the movie, I visited friends with a one-week old newborn. It was impossible, walking home in the cold New York City air that evening, not to reflect on the fragility of life from its onset and to juxtapose that with the idea of human resilience (or indifference) when one finds himself encountering the great, faceless abyss. (Which for some is an almost-daily occurrence.)

    All that said, in the end I thought the movie and its central theme had almost limitless potential which was mostly unrealized. The writing was average, the dialogue mostly predictable, and it was largely a star vehicle for Clooney and Bullock to put $13-paying, 3D specs-wearing asses in the theater seats. It had humanity in its ideas but lacked it in what was ultimately an overwrought, lightweight execution. There was so much more they could have done, either by stripping it down to its core and letting the idea and visuals speak for themselves or by invoking a superior script. Instead the took the middle road and allowed for transparently unexamined words on the page .. set ups that relied on hackneyed, emotion-tugging Hollywood cliches. All of which would have been more excusable had the set-up, and metaphorical dimensions which you aptly describe not had such potential.

    This may sound like a stretch, but given their respective genres and intentions, when it comes to metaphorically grounded films dealing with philosophical issues and spiritual rebirth, I find “Groudhog Day” to have it in spades over “Gravity.”

    • Semigeekly says:

      I’m not sure I disagree with you at all about the film’s artistic merit. There are certainly a handful of elements that deserve eye-rolls. What allowed me to overlook those shortcomings is the fact that the film (even in its pre-release advertising) never presented itself as anything other than what it is. Does it have some provocative images and ideas? Sure. But if all you want from your viewing experience is a popcorn-fueled thrill ride, that’s all you have to digest. However, for those like ourselves prone to over-analysis and introspection, it provides enough substance to encourage discussion and a lingering reflection. By wrapping its concepts in a little Hollywood sheen, it avoids falling victim to the pretension that many intentionally thinky films have a tendency to evoke. That, if anything, is the triumph of Gravity as a movie to me: not that it embodies its metaphor perfectly but that it submits its ideas in an immediate and approachable manner that gives each movie-goer implicit permission to take away as much or as little from the film as he or she desires.

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