Why Gravity's Radical: It's About Man, Not Mankind

We humans are beginning to think of space less as a setting and more as an environment.
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Gravity, it seems, has been made into a rom-com

On the one hand, the video above—made by the pranksters at Film School Rejects—is ridiculous: a terrifying-yet-also-poetic movie re-imagined, cheesily and clunkily, as a screwball comedy. 

Gravity-as-romance, however, also makes a certain amount of sense. It will not be a spoiler to say that the filmor at least a hefty portion of the film, is about a couple: a couple who have just met, a couple who are feeling each other out, a couple who are unusual only in the sense that their relationship happens to unfold 240 miles outside of Earth. We are meant—in the same way we are meant to do with rom-coms of a more earthly variety—to identify with these characters. With the fear felt by first-time astronaut Ryan Stone (Bullock). And with the folksy, cocky charm of veteran spacewalker Matt Kowalski (Clooney). We are meant to want what they want. We are meant to hope, on their behalf.

We are meant, above all, to empathize. “I wanted to create a roller coast ride," Jonás Cuarón, who co-wrote Gravity's screenplay, explained in an interview, "where audiences could connect with the main character."

And, indeed: As the tale unfolds, we get ponderous close-ups of Bullock's face. We see, in glistening 3-D, her steaming breath, her glossy sweat. The camera meditates. Her tears float toward us. We might even duck to get out of their way. What would I do, we think, if I were her? What would I think? How would I feel? Space may be Gravity's setting and the source of the film's much-commented-upon visual wonders; space, however, is largely incidental to the film's story. It is merely a backdrop for Gravity's sweeping allegory. "Is Gravity the smallest big movie in recent memory?" Chris Orr asked in his review. "Or the biggest small movie?" 

It is probably both. And while the film is certainly a thriller, and certainly an adventure, and certainly a roller coaster ride, it is also, in its way, a romance of a decidedly epic variety. It is the story of what happens when a woman, single and hopeful, has a meet-cute with the cosmos. 

WB

In that sense, Gravity represents a reversal from most other entries in the "SpaceFlick" genre. Most of Hollywood's iconic portrayals of the world beyond our own—epics, almost by default—tend to be macrocosmic, rather than micro-, in scope. They concern themselves, in pretty much every way, with wide angles rather than short. And those perspectives translate to the films' characters, too: The main players tend to be communities and systems, collectives that wage a kind of Red Rover game against space and all its complexities. The Empire in Star Wars. The Starfleet in Star Trek. The Nostromo in Alien. The NASA of Apollo 13The deep-core drillers of Armageddon. The assorted nerds of ContactWithin the worlds of most traditional SpaceFlicks, there are certainly men who take steps; the films' main concerns, however, are the great leaps taken on behalf of mankind. ("Mankind," President Whitmore muses in Independence Day, the worst and the greatest of the space-film genre. "That word should have new meaning for all of us today.")

It's not, of course, that these takes on space don't have their stars or villains or heroes. It's not that they don't encourage empathy among their viewers. (What could encourage more empathy, after all, than the Whitmorian "we're fighting for our right to live"?) It's that, within the universe of the typical space film, people serve plot, not the other way around. Star Wars, Campbellian epic as it is, is story-driven. Same with Star Trek. (Gene Roddenberry, creator of the TV series and the movie franchise that would share its name, discussed both in terms of allegory. By creating "a new world with new rules," he once said, "I could make statements about sex, religion, Vietnam, politics, and intercontinental missiles.") Stories, in these universes, are served by characters, and characters, in turn, are served by communities: groups that band together to explore, and to explain, the final frontier. 

Not so Gravity. In the film, the community is merely implied. NASA's Ground Control is a disembodied voice (played, in a brilliant nod to SpaceFlicks of yore, by Ed Harris). At one point, inside a space shuttle, a Marvin the Martian doll floats by. The people of Earth are silent and terrifyingly distant. Stone weeps—and, then, fights—for a daughter who has died. In Gravity, humans aren't just part of humanity; they're also haunted by it. 

But humanity itself is also, in many ways, the film's ultimate protagonist. You are also, in many ways, the film's ultimate protagonist. While "Gravity is not a film of ideas," David Denby put it in his New Yorker review, what it is instead is "an overwhelming physical experience—a challenge to the senses that engages every kind of dread." It forces empathy onto you, you little human, violently and brilliantly. It puts the intimacy of space exploration right there in front of you, viscerally. It is, as Orr noted, enormous and tiny at the same time. It is, A.O. Scott put it in his New York Times review, "less a science-fiction spectacle than a Jack London tale in orbit." Man versus nature, only the "man" here is a woman, and the nature is terrifyingly and tantalizingly unnatural.

And all this makes Gravity a movie that is very much of 2013. This year has seen the launch of NASA's Mars 2020 project, and of the MarsOne program, and of the Mars Initiative, and of Inspiration Mars—all programs designed, in one way or another, to send humans to explore and eventually inhabit our nearest planet. This is the year that has seen "space travel" evolve into another, more profound concept: space colonization. It is the year that has seen widely respected futurists like Elon Musk making claims like, "Either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct." 

The matter is not simply, as Scott argued, that "after more than 50 years, space travel has lost some of its luster, and movies are partly to blame for our jadedness." It's that, culturally, we're occupying new space when it comes to space itself: We're thinking less in terms of exploring the final frontier, and more in terms of inhabiting it. We're ready for space to become more than a setting. We're ready for it to become an environment. 

Gravity, in its ironic smallness, in its empathic humanness, intuits that shift. It is a space movie that is not really about space at all, but about the way that humans, soft and vulnerable, adapt to it. It is the story of the personalization of space, as enabled by technologies—of film and otherwise—that allow space to feel newly intimate and newly terrifying. 

The Internet theorist Clay Shirky argues that it's not until innovations get technologically boring that they start to become culturally interesting. New tools and new approaches need to become ubiquitous, he says—invisible, unremarkable—before they can be used in truly new and interesting ways. They need to become popularized before they can become humanized. We saw that happen with cars. We've seen it happen with the Internet. We may now be seeing something similar with space travel. Gravity's space is warm and cold, breathy and breathless, alien and intensely intimate. It is—it feels—real. It is a place where you find yourself eye-to-eye with a fellow-human floating outside of Earth, thinking, What would I do if I were you?

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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