To me, the importance of The Hero’s Journey is in understanding the arc of our own small non-heroic feeling lives. It can be hard to see life in a sea of cubicles as heroic in any way. Life as a license plate clerk in one of a dozen identical state offices, following rules and regulations set years ago by people who never had to apply them, rarely feels anything but mundane and mindless. And yet.. and yet… these are the scenes where our dragons dwell in this modern world. When I dwelt in CorporateLand, I had to deal with a different department, full of good people, run by a sociopath chief engineer who hired sociopath managers and sociopath engineers, bullies all. Apparently he intended they run interference with the engineers in my department, so his department could triumph. The mildly sociopathic chiefs and managers in my department wouldn’t confront, and apparently couldn’t outmaneuver, the other guy. One fine day, I found myself in a conference room, with my managers look
Gravity is, simply, a towering achievement. The reasons for this are many – Alfonso Cuarón’s groundbreaking, virtuoso direction, the performance of a lifetime given by Sandra Bullock (with George Clooney providing wonderfully grounded support), the magnificent tech work led by Emmanuel Lubezki and Steven Price, and so on. Such things have been lauded to the high heavens to the point where complimenting them would not be saying anything new. It’s a game changer, pure and simple, a true cinematic event in a time where studios try to manufacture such things like clockwork, only to see them end up as just another city-trashing blockbuster. It’s the epic as high art. But all this has been said. Chances are, you don’t need me to sell you on seeing it – you probably already have seen it.
So what is left to say about Gravity? Well, there is one particularly contentious element of the film: the script. The backstory is cliché, the dialogue isn’t anything exciting, and so on. But a script is more than dialogue. And just because a thing is cliché does not mean it has lost all meaning. Instead, there’s often a reason a cliché became cliché in the first place. A story does not have to be new to be good, it just has to be executed well. And Gravity is executed magnificently well.
So, then, let’s examine the story Gravity is actually telling. It’s a fascinating one, all right, and one that, on examination, is highly appropriate to have been written by a father-son team. It’s a story of parents and children, of letting go, of despair, of rebirth, and of hope.
- On Joseph Campbell
Campbell, sad to say, has become something of a dirty word in certain circles. It’s too formula. Too taken over by Hollywood Blockbuster 101. Too…familiar. And yet there’s a simplicity to Campbell. In his anthropological studies, the discoveries he made were revolutionary, and unifying: all over the world, we all tell the same stories. We all seek the same encounter with the goddess, the atonement with our parents. We all feel the same call to adventure – to explore, to go beyond our boundaries – and we feel the same fear that causes us, often as not, to refuse that call. We all have our own dragons to defeat. And we all want that happy ending. In the end, we are telling many variations on the same story. There are few things as global as the Hero’s Journey.
That makes it a rather appropriate structure for a film whose backdrop is the entire planet, wouldn’t you say?
Indeed, Gravity is perhaps the purest cinematic distillation of the Hero’s Journey since the original Star Wars trilogy. You can track through the film and, yes, step-by-step, that is the journey that Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone finds herself on. The call to adventure, the guide, the boons, the loss of the guide, the threshold crossing, the belly of the whale, the road of trials, the trip through the underworld, the apotheosis, the atonement and return. By and large (missing an encounter with a goddess or so), they’re all there – and the Cuaróns are doing it without calling attention to it. This is just the structure on which they hang their story – but, hey, if it works, don’t break it.
When we first meet Ryan, she is a sick-to-her-stomach newbie, easy to panic, frustrated, clipped, and shut off. She is constantly in motion, never letting up (this will be discussed more in the later sections about her backstory, and about visual storytelling). Her call to adventure comes when she is quite literally hurled into chaos. Up until this point, she has been always on the move, but she’s been in control of it, locked down – now she is no longer in control. What does she do? She finds the guide (Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, using his movie-star presence to reassure her and us that it will be OK), and he provides boons – the jet pack, the information about the ISS, and the umbilical cord-like tether. Kowalski becomes guide and parent to Stone, and she refuses the initial call by simply following his lead like a frightened child. But no parent can protect their child forever – Stone could not protect hers, and Kowalski makes the choice to save his “child” over himself. The guide is lost, the path is muddled.
It is at this point that Stone must cross the threshold (the entrance to the ISS) herself. This is her first true test: she follows the clues the guide left her into the protective belly of the ISS (she visually becomes a fetus in this shot – a callback to the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a key symbol in this very film). The belly of the whale, in Campbell’s monomyth, is a symbolic womb, a place where the hero or heroine shows their willingness to be reborn. Cuarón could hardly be more overt in his storytelling here.
Yet the womblike ISS soon becomes a monster – the fire chasing her away a threshold guardian, a dragon from which she must escape. She is now undergoing a series of tests – the famous dark road of trials like the labors of Hercules. She is forced to improvise and escape, but she still has not made the final jump – she’s still following Kowalski’s path (she keeps herself umbilically attached to the Soyuz as she untangles it from the ISS), and she must face down the dragon: the debris cloud has returned (in an example of the film’s perfect three-act structure, it will also return one last time at the end) as she attempts to achieve her goal. And she does. To a degree. However, like in all good stories, the tests come in threes: the fire (she escapes), the parachute (she escapes) and the fuel. And it is with the fuel that she fails. This is the test she was not prepared for. She is adrift physically, and emotionally. Ryan Stone has come to a stop.
And now, as she floats into a dreamlike conversation with a ham radio operator, and prepares to kill herself, she is making her passage through the night lands, the land of the dead. And in this stage, she is literally visited by the dead in the form of Kowalski. There, Kowalski provides one last boon – the knowledge of how to escape, but he also provides a more important thing: apotheosis. The film is replete with images of faith (both Soyuz and Shenzhou have idols, the discussion of prayer), and now with this supernatural aid, Ryan has faith – but not in God, but in parent (Kowalski) and child (her daughter). She has reached a state of peace with both of their deaths – atonement, in other words. And with this, she is finally able (with the fire extinguisher) to move beyond Kowalski’s instructions and take a bold leap of faith into the unknown. She has become self-actualized, and thus is able to slay the final dragon (reaching the Shenzhou, launching it, and bringing it down to Earth), to bathe in the waters and be reborn, master of space and Earth. She has returned home.
Campbell describes the last step, the Freedom to Live, as conquering the fear of death. And in her words as the Shenzhou begins its descent, Ryan most certainly has. She has atoned, she has defeated her terror, she has overcome her grief. And now, at the end, her Hero’s Journey is fulfilled. And the ultimate boon she receives? The ability to stand firm. Ryan Stone is finally still, and strong, and on her own terms. She no longer has to move.
- Parents and Children
“Yeah, yeah,” one might say, “but so what? So she’s gone on a Hero’s Journey, why did she need to?” Well, because at the beginning, she was in motion. In Dr. Stone’s backstory, she was driving when her daughter died and since then, she’s never stopped driving. She’s driven straight off the face of the Earth, in fact. She’s always in motion, never stopping and facing her grief.
As mentioned above, this is a story written by a father and a son. So it is appropriate that it is about a mother and a daughter. The daughter was taken by gravity, and gravity both endangers and saves the mother. The mother is reduced visually to an infantile state, and emotionally to a childlike one, before taking the bold jump into adulthood, into facing the unknown, facing loss, and overcoming it. The mother becomes the daughter, and invokes her both as reason to die, and, ultimately, as reason to live.
Consider the moment in the Soyuz, where Ryan tries to communicate with a clueless, non-English speaking ham radio operator. Her dialogue begins as complicated, trying to explain to him what’s going on, but slowly breaks down to guttural barks of desperation – in her moment of despair, she loses even the ability to communicate. And when she tries to go to sleep, she has fully regressed, lying curled up like the baby Aningaaq is trying to sing to sleep. In our deepest moments of fear, we regress, we curl up, and we wait for it to be over. Or we run. These are hard-wired, primitive emotions. They are childlike. And they are what Ryan must overcome.
Adulthood, then, is represented by the paternal Matt Kowalski. Like Ryan, he is in motion, but he always has total control over where he is going. He chooses his own path, whether it’s to recover their fellow astronaut’s body, or ultimately sacrificing himself for her. An adult faces the difficult choices, the hard moments, and moves on. They let go. Matt lets go. And so, ultimately, does Ryan, in her daring leap from the Soyuz to the Shenzhou. And it is in the letting go that she attains mastery over her environment, and herself.
The question is begged at this point: why tell a story about anything more than pure survival? Why do we need this extra subtext (and, let’s face it, plain text) about grief and loss? We already sympathize with her, anything else could be seen as pure overkill.
Well, sure, we sympathize with a woman in a difficult situation. But we empathize with a character who’s in a difficult situation partially of her own making (and Dr. Stone is, having fled so far from her grief as to have left the planet), one who is flawed and struggling to overcome her own demons. We feel for, but are detached from a character in the first category – a pure victim of her own environment. But a woman who deals with loss? We’ve all been there. These emotions bind her more strongly to us. We don’t know how we would cope in the madness and loneliness of space. But we do know how we’d cope with losing someone very important to us.
Too, it is unnatural loss from which Dr. Stone suffers. Parents outliving their children is…not right, in human culture. It feels like something out of the Dark Ages, that we have somehow moved past. A child losing their parent feels more natural – it is something we all, in the back of our minds, know we will have to deal with in the course of time. But a parent losing a child is almost perceived as a failure, in one of the most fundamental areas of humanity. Certainly, Dr. Stone feels it is. Why else would she suggest – almost out of nowhere, before she reveals what happened to her – to Matt that he cut her off so he can live? Because in the back of her mind, she thinks she’s already failed, she’s useless, she’s no good. She doesn’t think she’s worth saving.
A parent-child relationship is an anchor, a powerful bedrock. When it’s ruptured, it’s easy to feel abandoned and alone, like there is nothing out there to sustain us. We feel a great emptiness when someone we care about passes on. We are lost, adrift. Sound familiar? Cuarón isn’t really being subtle here at all. This is not a survival story about what it would be like to be trapped in outer space. It’s about surviving something much more prosaic and much more destructive.
Is tacking on a backstory too conventional? Well, that depends on what one means by “too conventional.” But the backstory here is not tacked on – absolutely nothing in this film is. The vast emptiness through which Dr. Stone must travel is the perfect visual metaphor for the loss inside – the loss of any future, of anything beyond simply moving through life without caring what is happening – or what’s on the radio. And thus, when Dr. Stone returns to Earth, it’s no wonder she arrives in a place full of lush greenery. That’s what happens when you accept death – you realize that life is full of magic and possibility. You’ve survived the ordeal, and now you live. You laugh at the mud, and you stand up.
- Star Casting and the Tyranny of Backstory
Sometimes a film needs star actors. Not all films do, of course. But whether it’s for non-artistic budgetary reasons, or if a star wants to play with their image, or feels passionate about a particular film, sometimes you need to put up with the baggage they bring to the screen.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, would an unknown playing Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford have the same resonance as Brad Pitt playing that role (or, for that matter, Casey Affleck in the role of the overlooked brother)? Would a certain key moment in Burn After Reading be nearly as funny without the cinematic history that Clooney and Pitt bring to it? Or in an older film, part of the power of Humphrey Bogart’s performance in Treasure of the Sierra Madre comes from us being used to seeing him as the flawed but ultimately good man in The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The African Queen, and Casablanca. Having a star in the role allows us to read into that part, that character, for good or ill.
In Gravity, this history is utilized in a marvelously effective fashion. We’re used to George Clooney being the rakish guy who’s always in charge, always ready with a quip. We’re used to Sandra Bullock being the plucky girl who overcomes great obstacles. And yet Cuarón subverts this cleverly – Clooney’s Kowalski is a guy who’s run out of quips (he drops “I’ve got a bad feeling about this mission” twice in the opening scene, for example), but keeps using the same ones because he thinks he can get away with it. And, of course, he ultimately loses control and ultimately his life. And yet, because he’s George Clooney, he reassures us. Hey, nothing bad can happen with the guy from Out of Sight around.
Meanwhile, Bullock’s casting runs in similar degrees: we know her from comedies, dumb action films, and well-meaning Oscar bait. We’re not used to seeing her in this environment. And so the character isn’t supposed to be there, either. Both Ryan and Bullock are not used to it. She’s frail, but ultimately tough. She’s likable. We’re able to read very quickly into the character even before her backstory is established, and this gets us onboard more quickly.
Speaking of the backstory, it actually operates on a similar level. Again, you can argue that it’s unnecessary, that we should only be watching a movie about survival. After all, what’s more human than surviving? But surviving isn’t necessarily something we consciously think about – at least, not in much of Western culture. And certainly not in such extreme environments. But we all think about loss. We’re all familiar with it. And like with the star casting of Bullock and Clooney allowing us to read certain preconceptions into the film, Bullock’s backstory of loss allows us to read emotionally into the film. He gives us the bare minimum – I would be shocked if Ryan’s discussion of what happened to her daughter reached 100 words. He doesn’t flashback to it, we never see her, we don’t have lengthy, teary explanations of how much Ryan loved her. Just the facts. And then we move on, the purpose having been fulfilled. Into her daughter, we can now read our own emotions – just like how we say, oh, that’s the George Clooney role, that’s the Sandra Bullock role. Just like the star actors, the backstory has thus grounded us. It is the bedrock on which the film rests. And where Cuarón develops his themes, and gives them the grace notes to resonate, is in the visual storytelling.
- Always in Motion
Gravity is a relentless film. Really, that goes without saying. But it introduces a key point: it is relentless because it quite literally does not stop moving. Indeed, one of Cuarón’s greatest achievements as a director is that he remembers something a number of directors have either forgotten or never bothered to learn: the art of film is the art of movement. They are, after all, called motion pictures.
As discussed above, at the outset of the film, Ryan is always moving, but she cannot control where she goes – jerked around by forces both positive and negative. She is at the mercy of fate – whether it’s her daughter taking a tumble, or the shuttle being destroyed by the shrapnel. She has no control over her own life. Matt, on the other hand, is always in control of where he goes. By the end, Ryan has mastered her own movement, and now is able to stand on her own two feet, secure in herself and her decision to live. Cuarón is suggesting that this is the key to truly living life: controlling where you go, and not leaving yourself up to the whims of fate, is what gives you freedom.
Now here’s where it gets interesting. We are generally trained to “read” film and movement within the frame in certain ways. Characters placed on the right of the frame are often seen in more favorable light than their counterparts on the left. Similarly, movement from left to right (much like how we in the West read books) is seen as positive – the future is on the right, the past is on the left. This is related to the rule of thirds in painting and photography. But it primarily exists in a 2-dimensional plane.
In Gravity, movement within the frame is uninhibited, demonstrating how much Dr. Stone’s world is off-kilter. Objects can drift up into the frame (as when Matt first catches Ryan). They can hurtle forward out of it (the debris that destroys the International Space Station), or they can even spin in place, dead center, trapped and shrinking (Ryan, after she first falls off the station). This creates a marvelous sense of dynamicism – the sense that we’re almost looking into a window rather than viewing a film. It’s a complete universe Cuarón has invoked here – a sense of items continuing to exist in off-screen space even after they’ve left the scene.
Physics teaches us that objects in motion tend to remain in motion. That is certainly the case in Gravity. Ryan herself is still only three times in the film (the film, incidentally, makes marvelous use of the typical three-act structure: three stations, three key points at which Ryan is still, three debris fields, three “sequences” with Kowalski, etc.). The first is when she enters the ISS womb and rests there, content and quiet. This is the stillness of the protected child, knowing that for the moment, she is safe (an idea which is rapidly proved wrong, and also one which she must herself break if she wishes to be truly safe). There is the stillness of the attempted suicide, an idea whose wrongness is demonstrated by her being on the left side of the frame. And then there is her lying on the beach at the end, laughing in relief at having arrived home. This is the stillness of the woman who has reached the end of her journey, having conquered it. And it is one she herself breaks, choosing to rise and assert her dominance (note that the camera looks up at her, giving her power for the first time in the film). Once again, she is finally in control of her movement.
The camera’s own movement is uninhibited as well. Consider, in my opinion, the film’s most bravura shot, as Dr. Stone (trapped on the left side of the frame, looking desperately to the right for help) falls helplessly away from the shuttle. The camera focuses on her desperate situation with a cool God’s-eye view, then moves closer and closer as she spins – and then we’re inside her helmet. We’re spinning with her, disoriented and terrified – none of us knows where we are. And then we’re back out, and out – and now she is trapped, dead centre, with nowhere to go, spinning helplessly and falling backwards into the black void. In this masterfully daring shot, Cuarón has not only set up our character’s situation and the terrifying stakes if she fails, but brought us into her point of view, and made it ours. And the terrible momentum of it has established the film’s own urgency.
Consider a more conventionally shot sequence. When Ryan decides to go to “sleep,” she is on the left side of the frame – she has given in to her past and her fears. Then Matt’s “spirit” enters – from the right. He gives her the pep talk. The camera moves over to her, lying asleep, still on the left. She awakes, and we pan over to see the emptiness on the right. For much of the subsequent sequence as she attempts to make it to the Shenzhou, she remains on the left, struggling to get over to the right. But by the end of the sequence, as she desperately tries to catch hold and finally does it – she occupies far right of the frame. She has taken his advice. She has decided to live. She has moved from left to right.
A script is usually given the burden of bearing the bulk of a film’s thematic expansion. This is, of course, entirely natural: a script has words, and words can be used to explain. And that’s what a script is often reduced to: the words that come out of people’s mouths. Too often, when someone says “script,” the automatic response is “dialogue.” Sometimes you’ll get “themes” and maybe “structure,” but that’s only if you’re talking to a film buff.
In the case of Gravity, however, much of the elaboration and development of the film’s themes of movement, of parents and children, of loss and rebirth, exists on the visual level. There is the much-discussed scene of Ryan in the ISS, hovering peaceful and womblike (her head is on the right, indicating she is in a good place for the moment – but she occupies both sides of the frame, showing that she’s still stuck between past and future). There is the umbilical cord-like tether keeping Kowalski and Ryan together (which the parent decides to break despite the child’s protest) – an image referenced in the film’s poster. There is Ryan, spinning helplessly and black against the stars – the ultimate visual metaphor for someone lost and alone. There are the moments of stillness discussed above. There is Ryan emerging from the water, crawling and then walking – undergoing human development in minutes into maturity, covered in the muddy afterbirth.
And Cuarón trusts us to see this. He doesn’t need to say anything about it in the dialogue. Instead, he’s done what movies ought to do. He shows us.
Conclusion: The Hollywood Ending and the Magic of Storytelling
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (the most-cited film when it comes to discussing Gravity) is about humanity confronting the unknown. It is a daring leap away from traditional narrative into the mysterious, the incomprehensible, the wondrous. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made.
Gravity, curiously enough, functions as something of an answer to that film. 2001 creates characters who are not developed, not “evolved,” who often bring nothing but a sense of awe to their reactions to what occurs. Gravity, on the other hand, postulates that, when confronted with the unknown, we remain the sum of our experiences. Matt has his stories, Ryan has her loss. Did we need that? Did we need to see Ryan overcoming her loss to have a happy ending? Why can’t we just see people try to survive? Isn’t it cheesy to have an apparently conventional emotional arc? Isn’t it stupid to have a visitation from the divine give her the juice to go on? Come on, she didn’t need to overcome her loss to survive and win, right? Hasn’t it already been done? Isn’t it familiar? Isn’t it – dare I say – Hollywood?
A fair (if admittedly straw-manned) question. But think about it this way.
In the ending of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels, Joel McCrea’s pretentious director is given a miraculous gift from the fates: the ability to, without prejudice, witness the joyous effect the very comedies he derided have on people in the worst situations. Because of this, he overcomes his greatest obstacle – himself – and is able to gain his own life back as a result through miraculous recognition. And yet, thousands of years earlier, The Odyssey functioned on a similar ending of miraculous recognition. Does that make the ending of Sullivan’s Travels less earned?
In the ending of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Jimmy Stewart comes to realize the positive effect that he has had on everyone’s lives through an intervention by the divine. Thus, by overcoming himself, he is able to attain his full potential and live happily ever after. Yet such interventions exist throughout literature, from the works of Charles Dickens to the Bible. Does that make the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life feel less earned?
In the ending of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Mark Hamill attains faith in himself through another intervention by the miraculous, and pulls off the one-in-a-million shot. Again, such instances are replete throughout the history of human culture. Does that make this less earned?
Of course, we say, such endings are only in the movies. We know that these things aren’t possible in real life. After all, we’re grown-ups, we’re realistic. But there is a part of us that hopes. And that’s why those often are the stories that resonate the longest and deepest. The idea that sometimes, in our greatest need, we call out to the universe and the universe answers back, and helps us save ourselves. It’s those moments of grace that elevate art to the highest spheres, and make us want to believe.
The very same questions apply to Gravity. Too often, modern culture values cynicism over humanism, disbelief over faith, disdain over wonder. As said above, a cliché becomes a cliché because more often than not, it’s true. A story becomes familiar for a reason. And how did storytelling begin? By helping us understand things we didn’t, through things we do. Beings like us who live in the sky make the lightning. A father-figure watches and judges all of us. The Earth came from a primordial mother and father. And we can overcome the unknown if we overcome the turmoil within ourselves. These things may not, of course, be entirely true. But we like to hear them. The best stories are those – the ones where our surrogate achieves the impossible, because it helps us believe we can overcome struggle too. The best stories make us believe miracles are possible.
So when the story of Gravity is called out as having been done before, that’s completely accurate. It is, perhaps, the oldest story in the book. But a good tale is worth telling more than once. It’s how the storyteller chooses to tell it that makes the difference. And Alfonso Cuarón is a master storyteller. Gravity is a magnificent mix of the new and the old – the oldest story, and the highest technology, all combining to tell a tale both personal and universal. At the end, Dr. Ryan Stone stands for all of us who have suffered, have struggled, and overcome. Like her, we can fall, we can be unmoored, we can be lost. And we can find ourselves. And we can stand up.