This movie has a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and I have yet to read a bad review of it, aside from my friend Claire’s excellent one. Everyone, from what I’ve read, seems to say something along the lines of “sure the story and dialogue are horrible but WHAT A GREAT MOVIE.”

I am realizing I no longer understand what criteria your average reasonably intelligent person is using for evaluating the merits of a piece of cinema. Do we now judge movies based SOLELY on how cool the technology used to make them is?

Claire points out the dearth of spirituality in this movie, and I agree with her that “space” itself was treated in a profoundly uninteresting way that actually surprised me, like, how hard do you have to work to make OUTER FUCKING SPACE seem domesticated and boring? I think for Claire, “spirituality” has everything to do with a respect for the awe-fulness of the universe, the sheer bewildering immensity and mystery of the cosmos, and so in this sense the movie did lack spirituality.

But I want to point out that there IS a sort of pat, childish “spirituality” shoehorned awkwardly into the plot, as when Sandra Bullock, mute, characterless, and cold, tells the unnamed guy over the radio to “pray for me. I never learned to pray. Nobody ever taught me.” As if herein lies the secret that will unlock her frigid heart–as indeed IT DOES. After the ghost of George Clooney tells her to just use the landing fuel to steer the escape pod or blah blah, she’s filled with purpose and a ferocious desire for life, after which she immediately begins basically praying–to the ghost of George Clooney, and saying deeply embarrassing shit like “please tell my ghost angel baby I love her when you meet her in Heaven,” like as if that is something any even half-assed PhD astronaut would fucking say to their colleague as he goes spinning out into the void, his fragile mind disintegrating. Your dead baby is not in Heaven, Sandra Bullock! Anyway so in this sense the movie was infused with this vague idea of spirituality as something that instills strength and the survival instinct–recall the Buddha statue we see in alarming closeup as she’s re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, e.g.–as if no one could “want” to get back to Earth badly enough to actually accomplish it, unless they were moved by a vision of their dead baby in Heaven world with Jesus patting her on the head. Wouldn’t that vision just make you more excited to die?? Also note all the “born again” imagery of the film, in the whole “learning to walk”/emerging from the womb ending, and like in the escape pod she floats for awhile, fetus-like, framed by the portal looking out into space.

In addition to this kindergartener’s take on religion, though, there is a much more powerful ideology woven into the film that I think serves as its version of spirituality and that is really dark, and that is actually the reason that any real spirituality or emotional content is totally effaced. This religious ethos is the one in which the individual is the only unit that matters; the one in which individual ingenuity can attain success even in spite of overwhelming odds; the one in which just the IDEA of an individual triumphing and conquering something makes us sob. In short, it is a film espousing the ideology of neoliberalism to an almost spiritual degree.

This is the spiritual vacuity I think Claire is identifying, in a way, and anyway it’s the one I felt. The movie supposedly confronts the viewer with the immensity of space, but ultimately comforts us by depicting that immensity as something that can be jerry-rigged using good old common horse sense and a little elbow grease. As if you can just go shooting through space with a fire extinguisher and ride a falling piece of Chinese machinery back to earth like a hobo hopping on a boxcar. Just like World War Z, when Brad Pitt–NOT A DOCTOR–solves the global zombie epidemic just using common sense! Turns out you DON’T need a fancy degree to go into outer space and drive all kinds of high-tech vehicles around. Anyone can do it, if they believe in themselves hard enough.

This is where we can see the economic theories of neoliberalism becoming more akin to a spiritual ideology, as indeed they are for crazy jackasses like Thomas Friedman and, you know, the U.S. government. Within this set of beliefs, individual liberty and choice are the only universal goods. While on the surface this seems like a good thing to us–we are, after all, steeped in this culture and can’t totally get away from its value systems–valuing individual choice above all other considerations leads elegantly to the destruction of unions and social security and all manner of government-funded social safety nets. Because within the ideology of individualism, not only are your triumphs ALL YOURS (remember how all Romney’s fans got so mad when Obama said “you didn’t build that”), but SO ARE YOUR FAILURES. So anyone who dies from having no health insurance, or who can’t get a job, or who loses their pension, well, they made bad choices didn’t they? They failed to maximize their individual potential. If you don’t like being poor, you should have gone to Harvard like I did, duh. Sandra Bullock almost fails because she doesn’t “believe in herself” strongly enough. She’s too much of a cipher. She needs to activate her heroic individuality to excel the data and maximize potential. Like her failure would NOT be because a government on Earth, ignoring the threat to individual humans, shot a missile into space and caused terrifying space-debris to go shooting out all over hither-and-yon. No. If you are brave enough, you can triumph over whatever deadly garbage a government flings at you, it’s so easy, quit complaining about the garbage and start flying through space like superman! You’ll be happier and better off for it! And if you don’t manage to succeed under these circumstances, it’s because you didn’t believe in yourself hard enough. You didn’t get over your dead baby or whatever. Regardless, your failure is NOT because of the garbage the government dumped on you.

This is a message we are given every day.

While watching it, I kept thinking about actually how DESPERATE we have become. How desperate we are to see the individual glorified against terrible odds. Because, like, here on earth those odds have become terrible indeed, haven’t they? Un-conquerable, lets face it. And so our movies have to stretch harder and harder to present a larger-than-life obstacle for our Bildungsroman hero to triumph over. Gone are the faceless Nazi hordes conquered by a single American’s derring-do. That’s way too easy–now our heroic individuals have to triumph over FIVE BILLION ZOMBIES or over ENORMOUS ALIENS FROM ANOTHER DIMENSION or over OUTER SPACE.

This is deliberate, too. We just saw Pacific Rim last night, which was like watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, right? It was such a Clinton-era PG-13 movie based on an action figure. And that score! Jesus. But anyway I was mentioning the deliberateness of this INSISTENCE on individuality above all else–at the end of Pacific Rim, after this whole entire movie that seemed to be presenting a sort of important idea about TEAMWORK being what will save humanity, all of a sudden, with no warning and for no reason, the main guy just turns to his supposed teammate and is like “I can do this by myself” and then shoots her out to safety in the escape pod no one had ever mentioned until that moment. Like it was THAT important for the movie to make sure ONLY ONE HERO triumphs over obstacles and saves humanity. So all this shit about mind-melds and humanity working together was just a ruse, and really it’s just this one guy who mattered all along? Lord. I had hoped he’d float down into the alien world and have an “Abyss” like idyll, where maybe they’d chat, and maybe he’d do a mind meld with them and they’d be like “we’ve made a huge mistake, we’re sorry” or something. Instead it was just like “FUCK THIS PLANET” Val Kilmer style double middle-fingers and him somehow escaping a thermonuclear explosion with just the sheer massiveness of his individual heroism.

For some reason, I had believed that “Gravity” was going to be this really dark, brutal exploration of loneliness and despair, and the impossibility of hanging on to individuality in the face of the purposeless void of space. I should have known that no movie with that kind of plot could possibly be as widely popular as “Gravity” was. But I am naive. And so I went to see it. And instead it was just Beethoven’s Third yet again, the hero encountering totally manageable obstacles and triumphing over them. How can we not be tired of this story yet? It’s been the only story we’ve been told for like 300 years at this point. Longer, if you count the New Testament, which a lot of people do. Teamwork and other people not mattering anymore, only what is inside every individual heart, only what you personally believe effecting your personal redemption. Failure indicating a lack of personal belief. Aren’t we sick of this shit yet? Haven’t we learned yet that a nation of pure individuals is a horrible place where nobody is able to make sacrifices for the common good or even recognize each others’ common humanity? Do we really all want to be the crazy man in the cabin with the shotgun yelling GET OFF MY LAND?

I don’t want to think of outer space as a “manageable obstacle” that can be jerry-rigged. I don’t want to think of outer space as something conquerable by just a little old-fashioned can-do bootstrapping. I don’t want to believe that any old person can hop into a fucking spaceship and glance at a trapper keeper with instructions (IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE) and go zipping around in it.

And I sure as HELL don’t want to be shown the glory of a single person finding the will to live because of her dead baby (why is it ALWAYS a dead baby, like women in movies can have no other motivation than dead babies?? If movies are to be believed, then, given how many miscarriages there are in the world, 90% of human women are walking around constantly on the verge of total emotional breakdown because of a baby (or “baby,” i.e. “embryo”) that died 30 years ago, I am so tired of this trope), and plummeting down to land and emerging, fetus like, into the primordial sea, and dragging herself to the shore, and then, as the music swells, walking AS IF FOR THE FIRST TIME, and thank god because of heroic individualism humans can finally conquer the Earth again, or something.

Imagine how great that movie would have been if it was the exact same in every way but instead of Sandra Bullock being the protagonist it was George Clooney, and so the final 2/3 of the movie was just him slowly soaring through the black emptiness, musing about life and death and the tininess of everything everyone has ever found important, and ultimately wondering who he even is anymore, and maybe he’s nobody and he never was

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9 Responses to Gravity

  1. Jamie says:

    Amen. Such a disappointment and such a terrible script. The entire second half of the movie communicated only via cliches that could have served as movie poster tag lines: “It’s going to be quite a ride!” I thought there was no way she’d survive that speech about wanting George Clooney to brush her dead baby’s hair in heaven. I was really hoping for a Deep Blue Sea-type moment (when the shark gets Samuel Jackson mid-inspirational speech). Nature/Space should have won. Have you seen Moon? It’s not about the awesomeness of space in the way that I had thought this one would be, but it does a much better job exploring the nature of individuality and loneliness.

    • Yours Truly says:

      YES. Moon is tremendous! Ten times the film Gravity is and at, I assume, a fraction of the price.

      My old man is going to make his own cut of Gravity when it comes out on DVD. I will post it here.

  2. Eileen says:

    Good crap, what a transparent reflection of the utter shit of contemporary thought and the manipulation that seems to be utterly normal now. This is exactly the kind of shit that makes me say things like “I kind of hate movies” because AUGH NO.


  3. Jona says:

    I very badly wanted it to be “Gerry” in space, but with both of the characters dying alone after drifting apart and slowly losing communication with each other.

    I still loved watching Gravity, because I couldn’t stop thinking about actually being in space. I’d never felt that physically connected to space in a space movie. Even though it was all robot-cartoon-graphics-space, it suspended my disbelief in a surprising, awesome, and meaningful way. I guess I treated it more like a motion ride than a piece of art.

    I loved the sound design so much, but hated the score twice as much. FEEL ME?

    PS – You’re super wrong about Pacific Rim!

  4. AJ says:

    Hmm. I’m not sure I’d say she “overcame” space with can-do bootstrapping as much as she survived partly due to ingenuity and mostly due to big-time luck (that’s how I read the fire extinguisher, Russian manual and Chinese space station). Space would still exist whether Stone lived or died and that’s mostly what I took from it. She emerged from the escape pod with a new lease on life because this terrible experience had affected her so greatly. Yes, there was some cheese in it, but I could tolerate that; it was her first mission after all, so some of her dialogue while slightly annoying didn’t draw eye rolls from me. Do we expect someone to act and speak like a seasoned veteran hardass the first time they’ve been in SPACE of all places? That to me would be the ultimate American cop out, the whole “I’m so badass I kicked this situation’s ass without even knowing what to expect.” Why wouldn’t she fall back on something a bit “childish” in this situation as a coping mechanism? Perhaps her character growth wasn’t as smooth as it could be, but honestly I’m willing to forgive that. And she didn’t survive completely “on her own.” Without Kowalsky’s encouragement and, later, rescuing of her (ultimately sacrificing his own life), she would have been floating off into space. Kowalsky, the old vet, gives up his life so Stone can (yeah, I know) be born again. That to me says more about the cycle of life than American “go get him” can-do-ness, though.

    And that leads me back to where I began; that she survived not so much as “overcame” space. Speaking to the film’s spirituality, I think it posed a more “take from it what you will” kind of stance than pushing any concrete notion of the spiritual. Space, in my opinion, doesn’t need to be dressed up. I didn’t need space to be “portrayed” as awe-inspiring to be awe-inspired by it. All of the religious points (praying, the Buddha statue, etc.) stood to me as human constructions; through Stone’s reactions (“no one ever taught me how to pray” [someone’s gotta “reveal” it you, prayer/religion doesn’t just exist like space does]), it was evident (in my interpretation, at least) that religion is just something we humans have developed to help us cope with a world not tailored to meet our needs. I’m not religious at all, let me make clear (it’s outlived its use in my opinion), but there are a lot of people who are and I don’t think Cuaron was going to avoid touching upon the issue (Christian messianic themes were evident in Children of Men as well). To sum it all up (I know I’m sort of repeating myself here, haha!), space is a terrifying place that we’re lucky to survive in and should we find ourselves faced with horrible circumstances, we need to find a way to deal with them; that’s evolution. Sometimes we do (Stone) and when that happens we can feel a little more alive.

  5. jm says:

    I think that all the love coming at Gravity is due to it being so surprising. Here is a film with 2 big Hollywood stars..and they don’t kiss…and there are no flashbacks…and there are barely any other characters …and there is barely a sappy score to tell us what to feel.. and the whole family can see it and not feel like it’s been dumbed down to the point where you are in Idiocracy. Gravity has flaws but I think the accolades are deserved since it was refreshing to see a strong intelligent female surviving. The other politically remarkable thing is here is that besides the Russians accidentally causing this mess with a missile test we don’t have too much jingoism in this movie.

    I can see the religious overtone here but I don’t think there is a compelling argument that faith is what is pulling here through. It’s a secular hallucination that gives her hope and renews her will to live. I think this humanistic.

    I agree with some of the neoliberalism individualism stuff, but I don’t find it nearly as pernicious as most other Hollywood crap. I think this is a step in a good direction.

    And I for one thought that space looked awesome in the 3D. The atmosphere felt subtle and realistic, no need to make it overly majestic. It was the simple wonder of orbit and I think despite the whole movie being about fear of the frontier it might just inspire a new generation of space cadets hungry for low gravity adventure (better for stupid young kids than Three Kings, desert army adventures at least).

    • Yours Truly says:

      good points! It’s so true that it is refreshing to see a movie with only two characters in it, played by mega-stars, but somehow it’s not a romance. And I always love to see a badass lady triumph over hardship! And yeah, it is nicer to see this movie presented as a hero quest narrative rather than yet another war movie with big yelling dudes shooting each other.

      It’s true about the lack of jingoism, but in a way that just supports my whole neoliberal reading even more–because in a purely market-governed world (which is what real neoliberals are shooting for) there are no longer national or cultural boundaries. There can’t be, if capital is to flow without any barriers. So there’s this weird ambivalence, where on the one hand it’s refreshing to imagine a world without nationalism, but on the other hand the transformation of every person into an isolated individual unit, unattached to culture or tradition, is also sort of dark. Anyway I think my reading of the film is getting pretty far afield.

      One disagreement though: the score, which was awesome and minimal for perhaps the first third of the movie, became SO brutally manipulative in the second half and especially during the climax! I agree during the beginning of the film the score RULED. But then it became really heavy-handed “triumph climax” music, esp when she was falling to earth. Like two different scores!

  6. Jamie says:

    Over the weekend we had a house guest (who saw this movie twice in the theater!) who had an interpretation of Gravity that I really liked. It made me reconsider my reading of the film, which was pretty similar to yours.

    My friend’s theory is that the movie is about depression. In broad strokes: Sandra Bullock has suffered a trauma, but she survives and thus (like everyone else on the planet) has to just keep confronting one damn thing after another. But she’s under-prepared and ill-equipped emotionally to handle life’s (space’s) obstacles. George Clooney tries to help, as a sort of therapist or friend or partner, but she’s so out of control (literally spinning out at the beginning) that she can’t even describe to him what’s happening to her or where she is. There’s so much in the film about her not being able to communicate, not knowing if anyone can hear her or understand her. (And like a good analyst, Clooney tells her to just keep talking, no matter what.)

    My friend noted that the fact that all the flight manuals are in a foreign language is akin to how understanding the brain science of mental illness or depression or analyzing the solitariness of existence doesn’t actually help you to deal with these things when you’re experiencing them. We know a lot about depression and have treatment plans and manuals, but the experience of trying to get through depression seems impossible and hopeless. Things that are supposed to help or save you (like the manual, the parachute) can be ineffective or even dangerous. And that sense of being pulled back in just when you think you’re on the right path is dramatized really literally throughout the film (especially with the parachute, but also with the debris that comes back around with every rotation of the earth, threatening and disrupting all the progress they make in the interim of each orbit).

    Religion and spirituality offer potential ways to cope or interpret your existential experience. But the religious symbols in the film (the Cyrillic Jesus card and the Buddha) are only introduced after they have been abandoned by the people that they were meaningful to (the Russian and the Chinese astronauts). And the howling at the moon part! (That’s actually where my friend started to win me over with this interpretation). The plaintive loneliness and animalistic quality and futility of it. When I think about it now it seems more sadly meaningful and less annoying than when I was watching the movie.

    The dead baby in heaven part of the movie really upset me (it seemed so cheap and manipulative). But Sandra Bullock does have to let go of the fantasy of being with her daughter in heaven (the way the other astronauts had to leave behind their religious icons) in order to get on with the business of saving herself and getting back to earth. She has to let that go and literally “wake up.” (There’s a parallel in there or a portrait of a different possibility with the guy who does a celebratory dance at the beginning of the film, then gets his face smashed and dies–isn’t there a shot of a family photo of his floating away or being left behind in the original ship?)

    My experience of the movie when it was happening was one of disappointment (that it wasn’t about the awesomeness of space) and irritation, because I felt like the film was endorsing cliches and empty spiritual structures as the prescription for a successful self-reliant individual who triumphs over nature. Plus, I hated script. But I like my friend’s interpretation, and it makes the cliches seem more like a clever way to sneak in bigger existential ideas that were different than the cynical neoliberal ones that I had, like you, sensed and bristled at. In his interpretation, the movie doesn’t endorse anything as “working” to help anyone triumph. Bullock makes it back to earth (and the terrible music with the “ahhhhhs” (the first human voices in the musical score) rises to let us know she’s rejoined the community of humankind). In this reading the film isn’t a classic struggle between the individual and nature so much as a struggle within oneself with alienation and loneliness.

    • Yours Truly says:

      I like it! It’s a much more sensitive reading than mine. It doesn’t excuse the script…and, even if we accept your friend’s reading, it’s still annoyingly treacly, like, recovering from depression with the aaaaahs and the triumph is kind of still just as annoying in the bildungsroman-y sense. BUT, this reading does make it a way more interesting film. Accepting space as a metaphor makes it easier to disregard how shittily it was treated as an actual concept/entity.

      Thanks for sharing!!!

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