--Warning This Post Contains Spoilers--
I saw Gravity last week. It's a very good film that has stuck with me since, but the question that has bugged me is this: what is the film actually about? Here's my radical view: Gravity is a new creation myth for the USA, one in which America is reborn as a woman, and takes down Russia, India and China along the way.
Clearly this is not simply Hollywood does 'escape from space.' The style and the sophisticated visual vocabulary all point to the film symbolising a deeper message, an ideological statement of sort. The name itself is an important launchpad: it's not called Zero Gravity. Why? Because this is a space film that is all about Earth.
Earth is the silent, looming backdrop to the whole picture. It spins serenely - weather systems develop, cities and oceans pass by - and yet it remains mute. Very early on in the film all communication with Earth is lost, but this only works to heighten the desperation the protagonists feel to get back there. They spin out of control high above in a place with no orientation, no up or down or north or south, and all they want to do is return to the ground. To gravity. To escape weightlessness and feel the natural, comforting heaviness of solid ground.
Stone does make it back to earth, and it's this ending - this achievement of a return to gravity - that is so important. Stone's module crashes into a deserted lake surrounded by verdant mountains. She struggles to get to land and crawls up the beach. What we are seeing here is a complete re-enactment of human development.
- First, the amphibian we see swimming underwater while Stone struggles and nearly drowns.
- Next, her gasping, pulling herself up the sand, her legs not functioning.
- Then her getting on all fours as she crawls for a few yards.
- Finally, becoming biped, she stands.
It is this final scene that shows Gravity to be a creation myth. It is a story not about how things began, but how they might begin again.
Why do things need to begin again? The 'inciting incident' which precipitates the death-before-rebirth is a failed downing of a satellite by a Russian missile. The debris causes a chain reaction: space-junk smashing into other satellites at 20,000mph causing more space junk... all of which encircles the earth and destroys all communication satellites. This is a technological disaster born out of a failure to manage our waste. The waste problem has got so bad, even space is too full of junk for us to be safe. (This is not fiction, by the way, this is how things are up there.)
Gravity is thus a creation myth rooted in environment concerns which have come to a head through technological anxiety. This disaster is upon us. How can we survive? How can we get through this and make a fresh start?
More accurately, how can the USA get through? Because, let's be clear, this is a big Hollywood ideological statement. It is a US Shuttle that is doing grand work on the Hubble Space telescope (no matter that the US currently has reusable space vehicle, and that currently it is India and China who are leading the space race in many ways.) An Indian astronaut is on the mission with Clooney and Bullock, but he quickly gets his face removed.
Message: NICE TRY INDIA, BUT NO CIGAR.
Once the disaster strikes we enter a time of apocalypse, a time of death before new life can come. Clooney and Bullock survive, but Clooney only does so for a short time. This is really interesting, because what it signifies is the death of the old patriarchal order. The 'Good Ol' Boy' is not going to be the saviour. Our protagonist is a woman who is smart, trembling and hates country music.
Message: if America is to survive, it has to shed the cowboy way of doing things and embrace the feminine.
Once Clooney dies, Bullock is on her own. But she has been given a plan by him: get to the International Space Station and use a Russian Soyuz capsule to make it to the Chinese Space Station, from where she can get a capsule home. In short: the ISS is deserted, and through a series of mishaps Bullock sends it down in flames. Reaching the Chinese ship she finds that it is gradually lowering its orbit, but she manages to get into the capsule and survive the heat of re-entry, while the rest of the ship is burned to nothing.
Message: if the international community is screwed by our attempts to be reborn, then sorry but that's collateral. And as for China, we will ride your wave to safety, using your technology, but we'll let you get flamed in the process.
As a 'creation myth' Gravity can be read as troubling message from Hollywood: in our struggle to survive, to reach a new dawn for humanity, we will bring down international systems and ruthlessly ride the Chinese, even if this means we are sole survivors. That's a tongue in cheek reading in a way, but I think this is one of those brilliant films where Hollywood starts with fantastic intentions and then ends up saying something far more revealing.
More seriously: Earth is what we have. It is our home. But it is the home for the whole of humanity, not just a liberal American elite - however much they have embraced femininity. What was particularly poignant was watching this as Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines. There would be no sound of those winds in space, up among the incredible technology, up beyond the clouds. America has long ruled in space, but it is only with international cooperation that the fate of Earth can be changed. The message of Haiyan - loud and ferocious - is that there is terrible trouble ahead. The environmental disaster hinted at in Gravity is really rooted on Earth, and it is not among the 'white' astronaut elite but in the majority non-white developing world where the human and ecological cost is going to be astronomical.
Yes, we need America to lose the cowboy, gun-toting masculine pioneer ideology. But we need it to do so in affirmation of the whole of humanity, not as a strategy to ride the coming environmental apocalypse in order to lead humanity out from the waters and into new life again.