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