I can’t fault you for thinking Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY is about astronauts and space. It totally looks like it is. All the ads show George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in space suits. Magazines are interviewing astronauts to ask how accurate the science is. Neil deGrasse Tyson is all up in Twitter’s business about how inaccurate the science is. You’d almost be crazy not to assume the whole flick is about astronauts and space.
Not even close.
I’m about to spoil the hell out of this movie for you, so if you haven’t seen it, you might want to go handle that now. IMAX, if you can. It’s worth the extra couple bucks. Swear.
Now, if you’ll indulge a personal anecdote and a little wound opening . . .
My wife was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. Our daughter was three years old. You’ve had loved ones diagnosed with things — maybe you’ve been diagnosed with something yourself — which means you know that a diagnosis isn’t when you find out something is wrong. A diagnosis is when you learn the name of the thing that’s been destroying your life. Sadly, naming a thing doesn’t make it magically disappear like some kind of Reverse Beetlejuice. The thing making my wife stare off blankly into the middle distance while holding our infant daughter, the thing making her sleep for hours or even days on end, the thing making her look at her wrists and face and wonder how to get everything on the inside onto the outside — learning to call that thing BIPOLAR DISORDER did not make her face light up, did not get her out of bed, did not remove everything sharp from the house. Medication didn’t do that, either, but it helped. Finding the right mix of pills, sunlight, rest, activity, sleep and food is a daily struggle. We’ve nearly divorced twice because she knew something was dragging her down and I was right there, holding on tight enough to be guilty.
GRAVITY is a movie about depression.
If you’ve ever lived with someone who’s depressed (I mean really depressed, not just down), you probably recognize it in Ryan Stone’s behavior. Flat. Monotone. Distant. Sick all the time (dig those sniffles). She snaps out of it in a crisis, as you do, but swings right back to distance as soon as things calm down. No hope. She’s going to die up there, and no one will mourn her. When she finally does open up, it’s to tell the heartbreaking truth that sits on her chest like an elephant: her four-year-old daughter died in a playground accident, and since then Ryan has shut down. Back home in Lake Zurich, Illinois, at 8:00 p.m. Central time, she just drives. Just drives.
She wishes she could have saved her daughter. She knows she could have if she’d just been there. She sees a chance to save mission commander Matt Kowalski and there’s light in her eyes as she screams, “I’ve got you!” But he knows she doesn’t.
“You’ve got to learn to let go, Ryan,” he tells her as he sets himself adrift.
“I had you,” she mutters. “I had you.” But she didn’t. And now she’s lost someone else that it should have been in her power to save.
He guides her, almost from beyond the grave, to the airlock of the International Space Station. Once inside, she rolls into a fetal position. The metaphor seems heavy-handed for a second. We get it. She’s in the womb and ready for a rebirth. But everyone doesn’t make it out of the womb alive. Birth is traumatic. Birth kills people. Nothing about this is going to be pleasant.
Tense crisis after tense crisis chase her into the damaged escape pod of the I.S.S., and there she finds that both she and the Soyuz are out of fuel. She picks up a transmission from Earth and as she listens to dogs bark and babies cry, she decides she’s had enough. No one will mourn her. No one will pray for her. She shuts everything down and waits for death.
Hope comes instead. And not from a devastatingly-handsome superman, but from her own mind. Her little four-year-old daughter Sarah and her fellow survivor Matt, both of whom died so senselessly and whose deaths she just knows she could have prevented, are her totems now. She leaps out of despair into faith and hope, asking them to take care of each other. She’s given herself permission to exist, and if you know what depression is like, you know that’s a hell of a thing.
Ryan Stone gives herself the best chance she can to survive, but as she prepares to descend she knows it’s a crap shoot. And that’s fine. Because accepting the possibility of death as a consequence of living ain’t the same thing as embracing death. “I’ll just sleep while you sing to me” and “I’m either going to make it or I’m going to die” both sound fatalistic, but they’re damn near opposite sides of the coin when your brain is constantly out to get you. Alive or dead, she’s alive.
I’ve heard GRAVITY described as more of a technical triumph than a storytelling triumph. I’ve seen endless lists describing its scientific or procedural inaccuracies.
Here’s how I’ll describe it: when the credits rolled, I sat in my seat and cried my eyes out.