I would argue that Gravity is finely-crafted science fiction. You may disagree with that statement, but do consider that the definition of science fiction is largely arbitrary and mostly self-interpreted. To me, science fiction is the exploration of the human spirit through the lens of technology. Gravity does this very well.
The opening lines of the film describe how space is truly inhospitable to human biology. The final sentence before cutting to the first scene is simple: “Life is impossible in space.” This short statement is essentially the core idea in Gravity, in that our concept of Mother Earth is really about safety, warmth, and all of those bottom-line Maslow needs that encompass our physical existence. The idea of gravity itself is symbolically the arms of Mother Earth’s embrace, holding and shielding us from the frozen, timeless, lifeless grasp of empty space.
After suffocating for nearly 10 minutes, Sandra Bullock finally gets into a warm, airy space station and takes several moments to breathe it in. In that moment, the cinematography strongly alludes to some stark symbolism of Sandra becoming a fetus and returning to the womb.
The scene is very important as it pushes forward the notion of the truly inhospitable space, and the brittleness of our biology.
All throughout, Gravity tugs on several root human physical and emotional traumas. Here is a short list of the intense, visceral experiences you will be immersed in through the magic of IMAX 3D (if that’s your thing):
- “Open sea” scenarios
- Seeing dead bodies
- Seeing mutilated dead bodies
- Accepting loss
- Accepting death
- Large objects smashing into you
- Violently careening
- You smashing into objects without brakes
- Smashing helmet glass into someone else’s helmet glass (in space)
- Freezing temperatures
- Uncontrollable fire
- Foreign interfaces that operate life-saving equipment
- Guessing which buttons to press on aforementioned interfaces
- and Drowning
Life is impossible in space. And if you decide to go to space, you might have to face everything in that list and more.
The movie reminded me of a game I made a few years ago. It was a short interactive story about a single pilot trapped in the bleak emptiness of outer space, and how he unravels when facing death alone.
It was called Drift and you can play it here. What I noticed at first when watching Gravity was that the main character in Drift and the protagonist of Gravity (Sandra Bullock) were similar in their methods in coping with imminent death, alone, thousands of miles from Earth. But George Clooney’s character—primarily in a mentor role to Sandra—was unaffected by every climactic event. His calm and collected nature was owed to his many years of experience with space travel. On the other hand, Sandra and the character in Drift were both novices on their first real space ride, thus the challenges they faced were huge and nearly insurmountable. At the very least, George Clooney’s character gives us some hope to the future of space travel. Everything gets easier with repetition and practice, including the mental and physical hazards of human expansion into space.
Of particular note is how the film presents choices and decisions as critical and life-saving. In one scene, as Sandra is escaping fire, she attempts to close a hatch in order to block the advances of the uncontrollable flames. The hatch is blocked by a useless fire extinguisher, but instead of pushing it out, Sandra pulls it in. If she hadn’t pulled it in, then she would have surely died later as the fire extinguisher becomes her only method of self-acceleration, WALL-E style.