Gravity is a movie I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. Rarely has a film left me on the edge of my seat as much as Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 masterpiece, and few have come close to leaving such a profound impact on me — both personally, and how I now watch and process cinema. It’s quite the feat for a movie with such a simple premise — a man and woman get stranded in space — and one would think such a short runtime (91 minutes) would hinder plot development and character growth, but everything in this movie just clicks. From Cuarón’s direction, to Bullock’s and Clooney’s performances, and the incredible score by Steven Price, it all comes together to form a perfect, harrowing storm.
But I’m not here to review the movie. Over the last two years, this movie has been reviewed to death by professionals far more qualified than myself. Instead, I want to dig into some of the deeper themes of this film, and dissect some elements that I haven’t seen explored too much by your typical reviewer.
“What do you like about being up here?”
“The silence… I could get used to it.”
Gravity is not your average story about space. In many ways, it has nothing to do with space. Space is just the backdrop, the stage on which we find ourselves meeting Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney). As we all now know, their routine mission goes horribly wrong as the debris from a blown up satellite destroys their shuttle and leaves them utterly stranded and alone, cut off from the Earth. But even their solitude isn’t the crux of the movie. When you strip away all of the grandeur of the film, the astonishing cinematography, the amazing effects, the acting, the music — everything! When you boil it all down, you’re left with a simple, but profound realization.
This really isn’t a movie about space. It’s a story about a woman who lost everything, and how she learns to live again. It’s a story about death, redemption, and rebirth, and it isn’t one we’re spoon-fed via heavy-handed plot points or long, expositional dialogue.
Above all else, we are shown this story through symbols.
When we first meet Dr. Stone, she is not a pleasant character. She is tense, distant, cold, unsure of what she’s even doing in space. When asked by Kowalski, the only thing she admires about the vast and shapeless void is the silence surrounding her. Later, after their shuttle gets destroyed and they’re flying to the International Space Station (ISS), we find out that her emotional distance isn’t just an outward projection, but and inward as well — specifically when Kowalski asks her what her daily routine looked like back at home. Her answer is curt and simple: “I wake up, I got to work, and I just drive.”
After a little more digging, Kowalski (and the audience) finds out that Stone had a daughter who suddenly died in a freak playground accident — and I believe the day her daughter died, so did Dr. Stone. She kept a simple routine because she had no life, no meaning without her daughter. She didn’t work for self-satisfaction or to better the world. She worked to keep her mind busy, because the only alternative was descending into madness or worse.
This is also why she said she always listened to the radio as she drove; she wanted to keep her mind busy so it couldn’t torment her with broken memories and nebulous “what-ifs.” We can see her struggling with “what if” early in the movie too; after the shuttle is destroyed and everyone is killed save for her and Kowalski, she effectively blames herself for what happened. She believes that if she had just followed Kowalski’s orders to stop working and get back to the shuttle, then everything would have been okay. Kowalski assures her that it’s not her fault, but you can see the doubt, the lingering “what if.”
Dr. Stone is a character who has been through so much pain and loss, that she’s almost numb to it — and I think that’s why she is so comforted by the silence of space. It’s not like the distracted quiet of Earth, where a noise or an image can trigger a thought or a memory. The silence of space is absolute, stretching out for innumerous infinities. It is in space that she finds the first shred of comfort since the death of her daughter, and it is in space that she is slowly being knit together into who she becomes at the end of the film.
Space is the womb in which Dr. Stone is made new, made whole. It might sound like a strange metaphor, but it’s a symbol that is shown again and again throughout the film — the most prominent being when she finally climbs into the ISS. Gasping for air, she sheds her space suit and stretches to her fullest length before curling into the fetal position, the window behind her showing the depths of space, the tethering cable beside her forming a type of umbilical cord — a symbol we see earlier in the film, when Clooney attaches the tether to her after she almost spins away into space. Much like a real umbilical cord, that tether is the only thing that keeps her alive when she’s afloat in the void.
But a story of rebirth wouldn’t be a story of rebirth without the actual moment of being reborn. We witness this at the end of the film, but, leading up to that moment, we first bear witness the contractions.
The first contraction is when the satellite debris destroys their shuttle.
The second contraction is when Stone and Kowalski slam into the ISS.
The third contraction is when the ISS catches on fire before she climbs into the escape pod.
The fourth contraction is when the debris destroys the ISS, after which she utters “I hate space.”
Space is literally rejecting her at every turn, forcing her to realize that she’s not meant to just exist in the womb of silence, and it’s shortly after this, when she’s alone in the escape pod that has run out of fuel, that she faces the reality of life and death.
The scene that unfolds here — when she’s talking on the radio — is strange, but powerful. She can’t understand these fellow human beings who literally exist a world away from her, but she connects with them in the deep way that only humans can. She howls with them like a member of a pack of wolves, not because she’s losing her mind, but because she’s finally reclaiming her humanity as she stares death in the eyes.
“I’m going to die today,” she says, and she weeps because no one will mourn for her or pray for her soul — she even asks the people on the radio, who can’t understand a word she’s saying, if they will pray for her, because she doesn’t know how. Nobody ever taught her how.
And then she hears the crying baby, and the man begins to sing a lullaby, which reminds her of her own daughter. ”I used to sing to my baby,” she says, smiling and laughing, “and I hope I see her soon.” Lost and alone, in the vastness of eternity, she remembers her humanity. She remembers what it is to feel and ache and laugh and cry and be human all at once before closing her eyes and accepting her fate.
But then Kowalski miraculously “shows up” and changes everything. “Do you wanna go back or stay here?” he asks, tempting her with the idea of staying there, where it’s safe and quiet. You can see the struggle on her face, the decision to give up, just as she did after she lost her daughter, or to rise up and reclaim her life.
“It’s a matter of what you do now,” says Kowalski. “If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back and enjoy the ride. You got plant both feet on the ground and start living life.”
You could argue that this is a “God moment” or that Kowalski’s spirit is Stone’s guardian angel, but I like to believe that something awakens inside of Stone; on the precipice of death, her desire to live fights back and pulls her away from the edge. She then asks Kowalski, wherever he is, to tell her daughter — Sarah — that “Momma found her red shoe.” This is the first time we hear her speak her daughter’s name, and it’s the first time we see her genuinely happy. She’s happy talking about Sarah, and she tells Kowalski that her daughter makes her so proud — so, so proud. “And you tell her that I’m not quitting. You tell her that I love her, Matt. You tell her that I love her so much. Can you do that for me? Roger that.”
It’s at this moment that Dr. Stone is finally ready to be born again. To go home. To live and be human once more.
“No more just driving. Let’s go home.”
The struggle of launching herself through space to the Chinese shuttle is the final contraction. She fights against all odds to climb inside, and she makes it, sealing her fate.
Plummeting back to Earth is the final push, and the burning atmosphere and the crashing debris are the labor pains — and even though it’s painful, Stone is joyful and excited and alive, kicking and fighting to be born. She sees only two outcomes. Either she survives and has one hell of story to tell, or she’ll go up in flames in the next ten minutes. Either way, it’ll be one hell of a ride. “I’m ready,” she says with finality. And she means it.
The shuttle then hits the sea, and Stone is completely submerged in water as she sinks into the ocean, forcing her to fight for her life one last time. She sheds her suit her suit for the last time, freeing herself from her former self, and she emerges from the water, cleansed and renewed. She basks in the warmth of the sun, feeling the freshness of the air against her skin before swimming to the beach, to the earth, where she crawls ashore like a baby. She rests a moment, gripping the earth beneath her, letting the water rush up around her.
She whispers “thank you” to someone we don’t see, and she laughs as she stumbles to get up, as she feels the weight of the gravity around her. And then she pulls herself up onto her feet. She stands. She laughs. She walks. She is alive. She is reborn.
And we aren’t told this story. There is no closing monologue, no grand epiphany of how far this character has come or how much she’s grown. We’re only given glimpses into her past as we watch her present viscerally unfold, and, in the end, we are promised that she’s going to have a glorious future.
That’s why I love this movie more than even these words can tell. It makes you think without asking you to think. Sure, you can enjoy it for the outer space thriller that it is, but if you pause for just a moment, you can see the true story.