“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – TS Eliot
The other night my wife and I went to see Gravity with a few friends. The hype surrounding this cinematic experience of space was certainly justified. The ominous silence and sheer magnitude of the star-studded void was palpable as the two astronauts, Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney), worked on the Hubble telescope some 600 km above the earth.
Much more can be, and has been, said about the film’s stunning representation of space, but for me, the real force of Gravity was in it’s depiction of our place here on earth.
A series of breathtaking panoramas of earth serve as the backdrop for the film’s
rising rotating action. As satellites collide with one another, we watch a silent spiral of clouds circle over the Atlantic Ocean. As the consequent space debris destroys all telecommunications in its wake, millions of electric lights meander down the Nile River and the Aurora Borealis dances over the Arctic Circle. It is no wonder that Matt Kowalski tells Ryan Stone that the “view” is his favourite part of working in space.
At this point, I was afraid that the dialogue between Kawolski and Stone would spiral into Carl Sagan-esque cliches about the smallness of humanity in the vast infinity of space. But it never did. Instead, Kowalski, whose levity seems to continually undermine the gravity of events that imperil their mission, is never focused on humanity in general, but on particular humans and their particular places.
This is evident when he tries to bring Stone safely back to the damaged space station early in the film, and he calms her down with a story of his experience of Mardis Gras in New Orleans. Later, as Stone’s oxygen supply runs low, Kowalski tries to divert her attention by asking about the important people and places in her life on earth. For Kowalski, the “view” of earth is beautiful because he has experienced and enjoyed the beauty of particular people in particular places. This is something Stone must learn.
As the reflection of an entire continent appears on her helmet, Stone mentions that Lake Zurich, Illinois is the place she calls home. However, it is the silence rather than the view that draws Stone into this work. We learn that Stone lost her daughter in a freak playground accident, and it becomes evident that space also provides her with the distance necessary to detach herself from the messy reality of life on earth. She does not share Kowalski’s view of earth and therefore, space is an escape into a silent, distant world without gravity. Without friction. This is the world in which she wishes to remain.
Stone also does not share Kowalski’s fortitude in the face of tragedy. When she loses him as her guide, she is left orbiting from space station to space station dodging debris and a variety of other obstacles thwarting her path to earth. Gradually, Stone settles into a decision to cut the oxygen levels in her spacecraft in order to slip silently to sleep and join her daughter. Due to the lack of oxygen, Stone hallucinates and is confronted by Kowalski. He seems to understand that she is trying to kill herself and he agrees with her that losing someone on earth is difficult. He argues that if she really wants to abandon her place on earth, the answer is easy: remain in space.
It seems that Stone had to learn what Kowalski went to space already knowing: that space is not a place where human life can flourish. Sure, we are capable of leaving earth and are free to orbit earth, but this freedom lasts only as long as our supply of oxygen. Once this reality of death in space sinks in, and perhaps as the true miracle of life on earth is re-considered, Stone gasps back to consciousness, and manages to make her way to the last available space station, which is now “kissing” the atmosphere.
At this moment, the earth is no longer the backdrop of the story. It becomes centre stage., and its actors and actresses are drawn toward it by the force of gravity. This force nearly destroys Stone as she violently hurtles through the atmosphere, landing in the middle of a small lake in what appears to be Africa. Ironically, when her space pod opens up it is inundated with water and the spacesuit Stone is wearing is now a deathtrap. Sinking to the bottom of the lake, her struggle to rid herself of the suit is once again her struggle for oxygen.
Given all the dramatic events of the past hour and a half, I initially felt that this last punch at Stone seemed over the top. Yet this scene reinforced the notion that there are spaces, even on earth, where humans are not created to flourish. This is highlighted by a frog that swims across the screen as Stone sinks. Of course, Stone emerges and gasps, filling her lungs with fresh air. She no need longer needs the spacesuit. She no longer needs an oxygen mask.
In this final scene, I become more aware of the miracle that the conditions of this planet are suited for our survival. Even a simple breath is a gift we should not take for granted. This is the place where mortals dwell.
Stone left earth only to arrive where she started, but as she rises, clutching the red dirt in her hands, she totters forward, now knowing the place for the first time.