Sorry for the long delay between posts, but this month has been absolutely crazy for my freelancing business. I complete one assignment only for three more to pop up, still that’s no excuse for ignoring all my readers, so my apologies. Fortunately last night I took some time to myself to relax and let my fingers relax, since my writer’s cramp has progressed into writer’s rigor mortis; I went to see Gravity, and it is without a doubt the greatest movie that’s come out this year. Once again I’ll be using my patented style of analysis to systematically ruin every surprise and character arc in the movie, so if you haven’t see this please don’t read any further. This is a great movie and really deserves to be seen. For those of you who have seen it, sit back and enjoy while I take the story apart piece by piece and show you why this movie is so damn good.
Gravity: A Storyteller’s Review
Gravity takes place in an alternate universe where NASA is actually funded and we’re still actively exploring space, but other than that the movie is pretty grounded in reality. I’ve heard from some sciencey-type guys that the physics of Gravity are wrong, and that some of the scenes are unrealistic but then I never was any good at mathing so I still enjoyed it. If you have Phd in Physics then either turn off your bullshit sensors or avoid this movie, nerd!
The plot of Gravity is deceptively simple, those wacky Russians decide to blow up a satellite but accidentally trigger a chain reaction that sends a giant wave of debris smashing into the Space Shuttle Explorer and sending Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) drifting aimlessly through the upper atmosphere. Well, not entirely aimlessly as Kowalski was field testing a new jetpack of sorts that allows him to maneuver through space and attempt to survive without any outside assistance. That’s the plot, and it’s a damn good plot filled with incredibly tense moments. Except for a short scene when Dr. Ryan is inside the International Space Station, the entire movie is devoid of all sound effects and watching space debris go ripping through the space shuttle, astronauts and space stations in the movie is even eerier when there’s no sound. It’s a good plot, but that’s not why it’s a good story.
The real meat of the story is in the underlying theme, the journey of the characters and the absolutely stunning visual symbolism.
As that not-so-subtle visual metaphor probably makes abundantly clear, this movie’s core themes are about life, death and the journey in between. The imagery, and indeed the dialogue, is sometimes a bit heavy-handed but the message it’s carrying is so good that I didn’t really mind. I’m getting a head of myself, however.
After a nail biting opening sequence, Dr. Stone and Kowalski return to the now shattered hull of the Explorer to find there are no survivors on board. Nearly every Satellite in orbit has been wiped out, cutting the pair off from Houston but Kowalski tells Dr. Stone to keep talking just in case. Ostensibly this is because someone might be listening but unable to respond to them, but the real reason is so Sandra Bullock and Kowalski can continue talking without being too unrealistic (talking consumes a lot more oxygen than just breathing.) This is a great thing because it’s Dr. Stone and Kowalski’s relationship that really make the first part of the movie fantastic, and set the stage for the later character development of Dr. Stone. Why only Dr. Stone? Well because Kowalski isn’t going to stay with us.
Kowalski does what’s necessary: he sacrifices himself rather than doom both of them. This is a powerful scene for several reasons; first because Kowalski attitude towards death gives us a glimpse at Dr. Stone’s character arc, two because it preys on the primal fear of being alone, and three, it’s a symbolic representation of life and human relationships.
Kowalski’s attitude towards his own impending doom is one of calm acceptance rather than fear and when he starts floating away into the emptiness of space, he doesn’t waste time mourning for himself or sharing his regrets. He sits back and enjoys the view, enjoying the fact that he’s finally going to be beat Anatoly Solovyev’s record for longest space walk. He uses his final words to remark on how beautiful the sunrise is as it hits the Ganges River hundred of thousands miles down. George Clooney absolutely nails this performance, to the point where you’re almost envious that the guy gets to die in the void of space cold and alone. Dr. Stone desperately tries to keep in contact with him, but eventually he drifts out of range and Dr. Stone is completely and utterly alone, everyone’s worst nightmare.
It was watching Dr. Stone desperately clutching at the tether that made this whole scene so powerful. Relationships are a lot like that, we’re all just attached by the flimsiest of tethers and sometimes it doesn’t take much for those tethers to slip, break or be let go, and when they’re gone it’s impossible not to feel that emptiness on the other side of the tether. More to the point, it’s also a great visual metaphor for life; delicate and so easy to lose. Kowalski let go of the tether, and his life, because he had to. His fate was sealed already, and hanging on would only have killed Dr. Stone as well. Some people though, let go of the tether of life because we just don’t want to hold on to it anymore. That’s the situation Dr. Stone finds herself in after she makes it to the ISS’s escape ship and finds out the engines are out of fuel. Frustrated and exhausted she turns off the ship’s life support systems and waits for death, until Kowalski reappears.
His speech here is amazing and I can’t remember it word for word, but it boils down to this: life is hard and painful to get through sometimes, and sometimes it gets to the point where it feels like it would just be easier to curl up and let ourselves go. I’ve been in that situation several times before, back when I was depressed and even a couple times since when the walls seem to be closing in around me; when I was kicked out of college for instance, it sometimes seemed like ending it would have been the easier option. After all, I’d raised to believe that life without college is a life not worth living, by my parents, by my teachers and by society itself. Then I returned to my first true love, my writing and I found a new career that didn’t care if I’d been kicked out of college. That’s the beauty of life, there’s always another option and that’s what Kowalski reminds Dr. Stone of. The main engines are dead, but the soft-landing jets that deploy after re-entry are still functioning. There’s still a way to get home.
Of course Kowalski isn’t really there, it was just a dream brought on by low oxygen, but the idea is real. So she fires the jets and heads toward the Chinese space station Tiangong, hoping to find a functional escape vehicle there. she succeeds but finds Tiangong falling into the atmosphere. She finds a functional escape ship, and with the station burning up around her, begins preparations to launch. Then Sandra Bullock gives us her best performance of the movie, and a speech that’ll make you want to go out there and do something crazy.
Houston, in ten minutes I’ll either be home on earth with one hell of a story to tell or I’ll burn up in the atmosphere. Either way, no harm, no foul. Because one way or the other, it’s been a hell of a ride.
Obviously I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of her statement and it brought manly tears to my eyes. She let go of her fear of death, and embraced life with every fiber of her being. She stopped worrying and let life take its course; she still does everything she can to survive, but there’s no more hopelessness and no more despair, just determination and confidence. Even after all the greatness this movie gave me, it’s the ending that really secures this movie as my favorite of the year.
After an admittedly unrealistic survival and reentry, Sandra Bullocks emerges from the ocean and takes her first unsure steps on Earth. Weak from long-term exposure to Zero Gravity, her first steps are awkward and unsure, and that’s what makes this ending amazing.
Hundreds of millions of years ago, some strange sea creature made this same journey. It stepped out of the primordial oceans to take its first steps on land and ushered in a new age. Obviously it didn’t see it that way, it was just evolving to take advantage of a new environment but that doesn’t matter. What does matter is some creature with only rudimentary leg-flaps and breathing with its half-developed lungs came onto land, and though all the odds were stacked against it, it survived. More followed, and soon there was man.
Gravity reminds us not only where we came from, and what life is all about, but also where we’re going. We emerged from the seas countless eons ago, and now we’re taking our first unsure steps into the depths of space. We may have landed on the moon fifty years ago, but make no mistake, we’re still in the infancy of space travel. We’re just like that half-formed sea creature, our bodies aren’t adapted to the environment of space and its an environment filled with dangers both known and unknown, but it’s crucial we take these steps. Even when tragedies like the destruction of Challenger and Columbia strike, we have to keep moving forward. Space exploration is the future of our species, and up there we don’t have nationalities, we’re mankind united.
We have to reach the stars because no matter what we find or what setbacks we suffer…
First thing that irritated me about the movie (in your excellent description) was the accident. Shock waves in space. Unless the Russian explosion is next door, there are no shock waves in space – that’s why it’s called space. I didn’t get much past that flaw of nature [space], [solar system], etc.
You know I never even thought of that and I guess its a bit of a shame that the movie was more scientifically accurate, because it does have a great message.
I know space. My degree is aerospace engineering. I do not recall the word shockwave being used and thought it was the result of a spreading debris cloud which took additional satellites down as it expanded. That aside there were certainly technical problems with the movie but far fewer than in the vast majority of space flight movies. What errors there were I could easily overlook thanks to the story and acting. I also agree that watching the disaster unfold in silence was far more disturbing than if it were accompanied by Michael Bey explosions.
The only time I groaned was when Clooney showed up and made his way into the spacecraft. Then I realized she was hallucinating and breathed a sigh of relief.
Yeah I also thought the movie had suddenly become crap the moment Clooney entered the pod. I was so ready to call bullshit on that one, thankfully it was a hallucination and Clooney’s dialogue was great too.
Yeah, as Ken mentioned, cascading debris clouds are entirely possible, and are in fact something that NASA and other space agencies worry about quite a bit. There’s a reason we now have very strict post-mission deorbit standards for space hardware: the more stuff is up there, the worse the potential problem, and the theoretical worst-case scenario could leave wide ranges of orbits unreachable for decades.
Even if they did use the phrase ‘shock wave’, it’s not entirely inaccurate. The edge of the cloud would be an abrupt change in density of material (from ‘none’ to ‘some’).
Well I’m glad I’m not the only one who was willing to overlook the inaccuracies for a good story. Thanks for writing in everyone,.
Hey, I’m soon to be a Physics PhD, and I loved Gravity! I picked up on some of the inaccuracies while watching, but it’s silly to let reality get in the way of enjoying a good story.
The term you’re looking for is Kessler Syndrome (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome). It’s a worst case scenario that could potentially keep us from sending anything up for decades. I thought Gravity was great, and I was pleased that I didn’t see the whole thing from the trailer alone, as many other movies have done!
Thanks for sharing that link! It’s cool (and yet terrifying) to see that the movie uses a real, possible event. Lets hope that never happens, space programs are hard enough without having to navigate through an orbital death ring.