Gravity: on letting go in order to live.
Gravity is a visually stunning masterpiece of a film. From the trailers one is led to believe that we are in for a real treat of the latest the technology of film can give us, with devastating views of the Earth from space, weightlessness that makes 2001 look positively primitive, and the kind of claustrophobic suspense previously experienced in a film like Open Water. Gravity, however, offers us much more than this — in addition to a cinematic beauty that repeatedly makes you gasp, it is also a profound parable about grief and loss. Spoilers now follow.
Dr. Ryan Stone (played superbly by Sandra Bullock) cannot let go. Her inability to let go is a recurrent motif in the film that makes itself known from the very start. She is obviously uptight and is physically experiencing space-sickness, a somatic representation of her inability to surrender to the weightlessness of space. The title of the film “Gravity” is the very thing missing here, the grounding force that keeps one’s feet on the ground. The word “gravity” is also related to the word “grave” as in “serious” as well as the resting place for the dead (Dr. Stone has lost her daughter). People who are grieving feel “the weight of the world” on their shoulders; people who are severely depressed have an intense feeling of heaviness upon them, as if gravity is doubled, they cannot get out of bed and they do not want to leave the house. Dr. Stone is cast into gravity’s inverse: weightlessness.
It is no accident that her name is Stone: something heavy, something drawn to the centre of the Earth by its gravity.
The second instance of Dr. Stone’s not-letting-go is when she holds on that extra second to reinitialise the system she has been sent to repair (she is not an astronaut, she is a scientist, and hence less learned in all things space). While we are made aware that the extra second or so it takes Dr. Stone to let go would have made no difference to what followed, it is none-the-less a symbolic representation of her holding on. But holding onto what?
When Dr. Stone is tethered to Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) we learn that she lost her daughter suddenly in the most prosaic way. She learned of her daughter’s death while driving in her car, and since then, she drives, works; drives, works; drives and works. This is not a life. This is not living. As she tells this story, she is in danger of ceasing to live as the oxygen runs out of her space suit. Matt learns this story, in fact, out of the intention of keeping her talking as they approach the International Space Station. When they do, we encounter another moment of having to let go. In order to survive, she must let go of Matt; to hold onto him would be death to them both. She chooses not to, so he has to do it for her.
In his 1917 Essay Mourning and Melancholia we learn that Freud makes a distinction between these two modes of being by the way in which we deal with a loss. Mourning (or grief) proceeds when an individual lets go of their attachment to the person. This can be a long and difficult process because most people simply do not want to let go of the lost person. Freud states:
“It is a matter of general observation that people never willingly abandon [their attachment to the lost person]”
Grief, therefore, is a painful process of letting go, “carried out bit by bit at great expense of time and … energy”.
Contrarily, melancholia (or depression) occurs when, in relation to the lost person, the subject refused to accept the loss on some fundamental level, in this case the person “knows whom he as lost but not what he has lost” — in other words, the loss becomes an unconscious one. The person is not in denial (Dr. Stone knows she has lost her daughter) but the fundamental nature of the loss becomes unconscious, because it is essentially a loss of part of the self.
In mourning it is the world which has become poor and empty; in melancholia it is the ego itself — Freud
For Freud, the refusal to let go results in the person holding onto the lost other inside one’s self. So long as the lost person remains psychologically inside the self, they can never be properly mourned (nor let go of) and nothing can ever take its place. Furthermore, it is a constant drain on the life energy as it is pulled inwards towards the lost object, and not available to go outwards into to the world; it operates like an internal black hole.
When Dr. Stone decides to give up hope, this is a giving up of her relationship to the world. In a sense, it is an (unconscious) choice to abandon the real world and to be sucked into the endless chasm of depression induced self-involvement: to literally let go of the world and collapse in upon the self and die. She shuts off the oxygen in her pod awaiting her death, when the spectre of Matt comes to snap her out of it (a representation from her unconscious). It is he (whom she has refused to let go before) that guides her towards the what she has lost, not just the whom, to use Freud’s words. He brings the unconscious part of her loss to consciousness. He essentially says, “your daughter is dead, you are not, you can choose life.”
She does. What follows is series of improbable events in which she survives one impossible situation to the next. In this sense, the film becomes a parable — and yet it strangely never loses its sense of reality and intensity that we maintain while suspending our disbelief while watching Dr. Stone find her life instinct again and to fight for it. Is it real, or is it a fantasy?
From her rebirth in the space station (reminiscent of 2001) to her rebirth on the beach back on Earth, in the heaviness of its gravity, we are treated to a purgatory-like trek back to life. Is it real, or is it all a fantasy. It’s all so improbable, no, impossible really — but in the end it doesn’t matter. The moment that Dr. Stone chooses life in the Soyuz pod, it doesn’t matter if she dies or lives. She is ready to live, in the existential tradition, with the choice to live, even if it is only for a few more minutes. This is the point of the film – not what actually happened, but the moment that she chooses life. When she struggles against the force of gravity, she is in a place that looks very much like it could be heaven, though she is clearly on Earth.
Post Script: Let’s not forget about technology and globalisation
In this short post-script it is important to note that though the film is set in the present, it is clear that the astronauts have come into space by way of the now defunct space shuttle programme. The trajectory of survival in the film moves from the destroyed shuttle, to a the limping International Space Station, and the Russian built Soyuz module; from here Dr. Stone escapes to a Chinese station. The stage is set for the fall of American dominance. Dr. Stone has to struggle with Cyrillic alphabet in the Soyuz module and then the Chinese characters in her final escape. She hears Chinese voices from Earth. Space is not only globalised, its locus of power has shifted east, and then shifted east again. Just last month the US government shut down due to the fractious nature of its representatives, and the flawed state of its procedures of governance. America too is having difficulty in letting go of its hold on the world.
What happens in Gravity is not totally a myth. It is based on the Kessler Effect which predicts the possibility that space debris can cause a cascade effect which could render our network of satellites on which we so depend useless. The image to the left is a visual representation of the field of space debris currently in orbit. Even a tiny fragment of this hitting a well placed satellite could set of a chain reaction of events similar to what we see in Gravity. When the cascade begins, George Clooney’s character jokes that a billion people have just lost their Facebook. This, of course, would be the least of our problems as navigation, communication, and a whole host of functions upon which we currently depend. So in another sense, this film also offers us a moment to reflect on what it is that we as a global society are holding on to in relation to our dependence on technology; technology upon which we so depend, yet remains, in an important sense, so fragile.
Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia.
Space Junk from: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/10/081013112443.htm
All film stills property of Warner Bros.