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Gravity : random thoughts, only one cat picture


That's the only cat picture. Honest. There are no more after that. There are, however, lots of words about a film which only released recently, so if you haven't seen it, bookmark this for later.

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1. The two newly-released sf movies that I have enjoyed the most this year have been Pacific Rim and Gravity, which are both written and directed by Mexican directors. I don't know how to interpret this: this could just be a coincidence or it could be a sign that Mexican sf is a thing I need to read more of. I'll keep slowly learning Spanish and find out.


2. The primary reason why anyone categorizes these two films as science fiction is that they attempt to take somewhat fantastical (...okay, in Pacific Rim they're very fantastical) events and look at them through the context of how humans would use technology to respond. Pacific Rim, in spite of its more fantastical elements, is almost the "more" science fictional film by the advantage of taking a long time after the event occurs: several years happen, in-universe, in which humans can test methods of responding to the event. Gravity must be a thriller by design and so it doesn't do much world-building: it is, essentially, a movie set today, with modern technology.

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3. There's some (or lots, depending on how nitpicky one is being) scientific inaccuracies for the purposes of plot but at the end of the day this is basically a hard sf film: space is quiet, orbital mechanics mostly work, and no heavenly bodies save the day. ...or do they? The film, which at other times is a bit thick with metaphor, is subtle on whether Matt's last scene is a literal hallucination or a spiritual event. I, being who I am, lean hard towards the former, but I can totally see how anyone of different opinions than myself could lean towards the latter. And I highly appreciated that subtlety: sometimes I enjoy films that let the viewer come in with his or her opinions and perspectives and use those to inform his or her understanding of the film.

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4. Before this film, 2001 was my favourite popular hard sf film. But it has a problem: the Star Child. Whereas two earlier uses of the Monolith turned pre-human apes into starting-to-be-human apes and lunar-at-best space explorers into Jupiter-and-back space explorers, at the end the Monolith suddenly changes someone into a... hyper-intelligent baby floating in space? Thinking about it maybe that's the difference between a group finding a Monolith versus just one individual and that could be the explanation, but at the end of the day the Monolith, particularly its final action, is weird and doesn't fit the realistic tone of the rest of the film.

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5. Gravity, aside from the scene mentioned in #3, which is arguable, doesn't have any such weird moments, which is why I'm promoting it internally to my favourite popular hard sf film. I'm always looking for new contenders for that so if you have suggestions please let me know.

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6. Okay, okay, I'll be honestly critical, there is a weird moment. But it's not metaphysical, it's just of the what the hells variety. It's when an experienced astronaut is talking to a less experienced astronaut about her family and she reveals to the audience (and her crewmate) that she had a young child die and ever since then (when was then?) she has been living a life untethered. As a metaphor about space, I get it, I get it, it's very profound and about how we humans need to work together to solve our problems. ...except that Ryan survives primarily through her own work? I mean she uses infrastructure that other people built but once Matt is out of the film there is no more working together. So the character arc of "one woman must learn to work with others to survive" then becomes "one woman must learn to be independent to survive" which I guess is also a metaphor but now there's a meta-metaphor going on and it's a bit too many metaphors for this non-film major to keep track of.

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7. I really really dug the last scene wherein Ryan recreates vertebrate evolutionary history by flopping onto the beach and then crawling on all fours and then standing up and walking. I loved the hells out of that metaphor, because its a coda that is a mini-summary of the film's main idea. Much as Ryan was (sorta) fighting gravity (I mean technically velocity but whatever) in space, when she gets to Earth she has to fight gravity all over again. She does so by emerging from her egg, tossing aside her amniotic sac, and flopping onto the beach. But humans ain't lungfish, we do more than flop on the beach, we walk upright, we conquer gravity. And so she does.

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8. 2001 is about progress and moving forward towards new goals. There's no time to stop and smell the roses, humans and our technology are both on a mission, and apparently technology is okay with letting human error occur to kill all humans as long as the mission succeeds. Gravity is a celebration of what we have achieved already: we conquered gravity in the sense of achieving bipedalism, and then we conquered gravity in the sense of putting tons of Earth material into Earth orbit. And even when things go horribly disastrously wrong in space... most people in space conquer the challenge. The International Space Station crew all escape (we see no corpses), as does the crew of the Tiangong. The shuttle has bad luck and (except for the purposes of plot) two of its crew should have survived even though the shuttle itself was damaged irretrievably. Heck, the film has gorgeous imagery of every habitation in space slowly being destroyed. And yet humans conquer this challenge.

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9. This isn't an anti-space movie. It's not saying that we should abandon space exploration or that space is too hazardous to live in or blah blah blah. It's realistic about space: in reality, the crews of four space missions have died, along with literally hundreds of innocent bystanders killed by rocket explosions and fuel explosions and all kinds of awful things. But we live in a naturalistic universe; bad things happen, it's nobody's fault, and we can either be like Matt and accept that and push our boundaries or be like Ryan and go driving every night because we've embraced nihilism as a response to the uncaring cruelty of the universe. Ryan only survives Gravity because she is pushed and pulled by real and imaginary Matt: likewise, we can only survive gravity because we push ourselves off of this rock. Most days it pulls us back down. Some days it crashes us back to the surface. But on the days where we are able to fly? "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield"? Then we know that all of those hardships were just challenges we had to surpass in order to face new and better hardships.

If we're willing to face the challenges of space, it's our future. We can abandon our umbilical cord to Earth, we can emerge from the shell of our Mother Earth, we can land on new worlds and walk on them.

...or we can dwell on the past and doom ourselves to die when space debris hits our home. It's our choice as a species and Gravity encourages us to make the wiser choice.

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