It is easy to look at the night sky, imagine the endless worlds of the cosmos, and fantasize about voyaging deep into space. Something primordial within us is drawn to such great unknowns. And yet, space is an utterly hostile environment. According to NASA, there are more than half a million pieces of debris floating in Earth’s orbit, ranging in size from. a marble to a softball, all of which are moving at about 10 times the speed of a bullet. Once exposed to the vacuum of space, the human body faces swift death, thanks to oxygen depletion, gross depressurization, liquid boil-off and organ failure. Surviving in space represents one of the great monuments to human ingenuity, but it has become so commonplace to us that we take it for granted, unaware of the extraordinary risks it entails. Thankfully, there exists Gravity, a movie which reminds us that all astronauts must be heroes, because nobody else would ever take the job.
On a routine mission to service the Hubble space telescope, the crew of the Space Shuttle Explorer is caught in a fast-moving debris field caused by the botched destruction of a Russian satellite. The junk shoots through the Explorer like a massive shotgun blast, killing most of the crew and cutting loose first-time astronaut Dr. Ryan Stone. Stone is a biomedical engineer whose adventure in space is undercut by her lingering grief over the accidental death of her young daughter. Mission commander Matt Kowalski, on his final mission, rescues Stone and together the pair retreat to the critically damaged Explorer. Cut off from home and unable to stay in orbit, the two must use all their training and imagination to figure out how to get back to Earth’s surface safely, all while surviving the repeated transit of the killer debris field. That’s it. This is a story that isn’t about complex narrative. It’s about how a simple objective, under the right conditions, becomes almost impossible.
Lots of people decry the super-saturation of special effects in movies, but Gravity is a story that could not exist without them. At only 91 minutes long, some 80 minutes of it involve CGI, but it is proof that we shouldn’t blame a tool for the poor work of its craftsmen, because Gravity is a movie that is astonishing to behold. Few movies capture the sense of being in space in such a compelling fashion. The movie is largely accurate, scientifically—making the occasional sacrifice for the sake of narrative—and it definitely imparts the sense of how terrifying being in space really can be if you’re in trouble. Being a 100 vertical miles from safety is a whole lot farther than 1,000 horizontal miles.
This is a minimalist tale that mostly consists of two characters—the rattled first-timer Stone, and the calm veteran Kowalski. Together, they form the spectrum of the audience’s own experience in space and what we imagine the seasoned astronaut’s experience to be. Stone is our representative in this story, having trained for her orbital mission, but isn’t really prepared for what to do when everything goes wrong. Kowalski, on the other hand, has been in space so many times, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen firsthand, and even when this extreme emergency occurs, he still always makes the correct decision. Naturally, Kowalski can’t stay around forever, and once he departs the scene, we’re left with nothing more than Stone, a few quiet oases of floating technology, the silence of space, and the constant specter of instant death. Her strength, courage and resourcefulness become the story’s fuel.
Everywhere Stone goes, danger awaits her. Even when she’s doing the right thing, her situation is such that everything else is too far out of whack to rely on it. Nothing stays intact. No fire doesn’t break out. Nothing vital doesn’t get hit again by the debris field. Nobody who can help Stone get home is close enough to aid her, a fact driven home during a pivotal moment when she and Kowalski are separated, and for a time, Kowalski continues to counsel her and giver her solace until she and he finally drift too far apart to communicate.
Throughout this adventure, we see that the most vital ingredient to emergency survival in space isn’t oxygen or working batteries, but communication. The human animal isn’t meant to survive on its own, really. And nowhere can one be more alone than when drifting in medium orbit over six billion people who can’t reach out to you, and who can’t hear your cries for help. Even when Stone does manage to break through and contact somebody by radio, it’s in the wrong language, and she remains as alone as ever before. One wonders if the voice on the other end of the channel even knows where his conversation partner is. Probably not.
Stone reminisces about her daughter’s untimely death, which has become a driving force for Stone’s own work as a scientist and as an astronaut. Her emotional wounds are not entirely closed, however, re-opened by the trauma of her experience in space. Her scramble from the Explorer to the International Space Station to the Chinese station Tianjong is a desperate hustle to return to a world where all that awaits her is more painful memories. With every challenge Stone faces, we sense that nowhere is safe for her; immediate death in space, endless pain on Earth. But as Stone processes the loss of her daughter, her colleagues, and even her own life, we see that cruel fortune awaits us everywhere. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a moment of truth when Stone must cheat death one last time while inches away from safety. In space, we measure distance in millions of miles, but the distance separating life from death is too thin to see. And it is no reason to stay put and wait for it.