Gravity – Between Heaven and Earth
Ryan Stone’s journey is an alchemical process, the transformation of an inferior and abased material into a more noble and superior substance.
Ryan Stone’s journey is an alchemical process, the transformation of an inferior and abased material into a more noble and superior substance.
This article is a rework/translation of the article published in French by Capture Mag.
Earth was not: nor globes of attraction
The will of the Immortal expanded
Or contracted his all flexible senses.
The Book of Urizen, William Blake
Since its release in 2013, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been largely praised for its stunning visuals and its masterful mise-en-scène… much less so for its story and its meaningfulness. Quite often, the very same critics who would laud the movie’s style would rush to add that it lacks substance and ultimately compare it to a theme park ride.
To be fair, it is true that, at face value, Gravity never pretends to be more than a simple, straightforward survival film. It tells the story of Dr. Ryan Stone, a stranded-in-space character, from the destruction of her space shuttle to her final arrival on firm ground. True to a classic survival movie trope, Gravity focuses solely on its protagonist and depicts the transformative nature of her journey. A grieving mother who has lost the will to live since the death of her child, Ryan Stone will have to overcome her trauma and find the strength and courage to come back to Earth on her own.
In a sense, Gravity was indeed conceived as a kind of theme park ride. It sets off two kind of journeys, a sensory one provided by the images and an emotional one provided by the characters, and it never lets the viewer stray away from this double path. If for any reason the audience is not engaged with the storyline, there’s apparently nothing else to focus on: no subplot about the mission supervisors on Earth, no monologue to introduce secondary themes, just Ryan Stone and her physical and emotional journey. It is quite likely that Alfonso Cuarón’s very intention was to avoid anything that would have distracted the audience from what he wants them to experience. As such, it is not an insult to Cuarón to say that Gravity isn’t a movie which requires you to think as much as it requires you to feel. On the contrary, it is a testament to Cuarón’s commitment to his art as a director and a storyteller.
Yet, it is always worth remembering that just because a movie doesn’t require you to think about it, it doesn’t mean you can’t… and, in Gravity‘s case, you should! Behind its straightforward facade, Gravity hides a depth and breadth of meaning. Through symbols and patterns, scattered on screen and in the script, it tells a much larger story than just a single character trying to survive. It tells tales of the universe and of humankind, and ultimately it addresses the age-old question of humankind’s purpose with a very cinematic answer.
The ancestral knowledge
Let’s start by having a look at Ryan Stone’s journey itself. Just after the Explorer shuttle has been destroyed by the wreckage of an old satellite, she is stranded in space with her colleague, Matt Kowalski. To survive, they have to reach the International Space Station before running out of oxygen. She does manage to board the station, thanks to Kowalski’s sacrifice, but soon a fire breaks out. She boards the Soyuz capsule docked to the station and detaches it from the ISS, only to discover that the capsule’s engine is out of fuel. Succumbing to despair, she abandons all hope and cuts off the capsule’s oxygen supply. As she is losing consciousness, she starts dreaming or hallucinating and sees Kowalski entering the capsule. He suggests she should use the capsule’s soft-landing rockets to propel it towards the Chinese space station Tiangong. Waking up with a renewed will to live, she launches the Soyuz towards the Tiangong. As the Russian capsule cannot dock the Chinese station, she uses a fire extinguisher to cross the last few meters as the Chinese Space Station, also hit by the satellite’s wreckage, is already falling into the Earth’s atmosphere. Just before the station disintegrates, she manages to board the Shenzhou capsule and uses it to achieve a safe EDL. The capsule then falls to the bottom of a lake and Ryan Stone has to get rid of her space suit to avoid drowning. She finally can swim to firm ground, safe and alive.
As we can see, Ryan Stone’s journey is in itself symbolically loaded, as it is divided into several threats and trials linked to the four alchemical elements: air, fire, earth and water. First, air is missing. Then, fire is destroying the ISS. Then earth’s gravity is pulling the Chinese space station and capsule towards the ground. Finally, water threatens to drown her. Even more symbolically, after each step, Ryan Stone is able to use the corresponding element in the subsequent ordeals. After passing the air ordeal, she will be able to use the gas inside a fire extinguisher to propel herself to the Chinese space station. After escaping the burning ISS, she can use fire, in the form of rockets, both to launch the Soyuz towards the Chinese Space Station and to slow down the Shenzhou capsule before it reaches the lake’s surface. As she’s about to drown in the lake, she can push on the bottom ground to propel herself upwards to the surface and finally complete her journey.
This alchemical theme is also embedded in the character’s very name. « Ryan Stone » can both be interpreted as a soundalike of « rhinestone » and as a name meaning something like « king’s stone », the name Ryan coming from the Gaelic for « little king ». This double meaning contributes to the interpretation of Ryan Stone’s journey as an alchemical process, as the transformation of an inferior and abased material into a more noble and superior substance. The story even puts her through the multiple heating and cooling steps of the alchemical process as she endures extreme temperature variations, from the freezing cold of space and of the Soyuz capsule to the extreme heat of the ISS fire and of the Chinese module during atmosphere re-entry. Finally, her separation from and reunion with George Clooney’s character can be seen as a reference to solve et coagula, an alchemical principle stipulating that to be elevated, raw matter has to be broken down into its separated base components and then recomposed in a different, better way.
Furthermore, the fact that Ryan Stone is mourning the death of her child also contributes to the alchemical theme, this time through a Jungian perspective. In Psychology and Alchemy, psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung theorised a correspondence between the alchemical principles and the psychological processes. This, itself, was consistent with the alchemical postulate claiming that the alchemist’s work cannot be restricted to the transformation of external matter. It also has to include an internal and personal transformation. This idea of an equivalence of the microcosm (the internal processes of an individual) and the macrocosm (the external processes of the universe) is enunciated by the legendary Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus‘s quote: « That which is below is like that which is above / and that which is above is like that which is below / to do the miracles of one only thing. » Which, as a side-note, sounds like a proper description for Gravity itself as some sequences in the movie strongly rely on the confusion between up and down induced by the absence of gravity.
That said, we must add that Gravity‘s alchemical symbolism is not only a mean to illustrate the psychological evolution of Dr Stone and the overcoming of her grief. It also supports a larger humanist statement about the place and the role of humankind in the universe.
In this respect, the movie treads in the footsteps of Renaissance philosophers and artists such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Giordano Bruno, Jan Van Eyck, Jean Pic de la Mirandole, Leonardo da Vinci or, later, Isaac Newton.
A story of Earth
The influence of Renaissance humanism on Gravity takes several interlinked forms. Focusing on the idea of creation – a fundamental notion in alchemy where the process for creating the philosopher stone is named the – the movie tells the symbolic tale of a double cosmogony.
The first one is external and universal. It basically describes the story of Earth through a visual allegory. As Stone reaches the ISS, thus overcoming the air ordeal, she unsuccessfully tries to contact Kowalski who just sacrificed himself for her. Instead of filming her, the camera shows images of Earth through the station’s porthole, and more specifically a large area covered by huge clouds spiraling. Later, after she had to go through the flames in the ISS and took refuge in the Soyuz module, there is a wide exterior shot of the capsule with an image of Earth covered by polar lights. Towards the end of the movie, Stone escapes the Chinese capsule underwater and reaches the surface. Both her and the camera are then looking at a strip of land nearby. Instead of swimming towards it, she then moves in the other direction to reach the other bank, which was off-screen, as if this first strip of land were only there to be looked at. Finally, as she reaches firm ground and tries to stand up, a splash of water lands on the camera lens and is still visible as Stone finally stands up and contemplates the green, lush landscape.
These four steps follow the main stages of our solar system’s formation and of the apparition of life. The spiraling clouds evoke hydrogen concentrating as the result of gravity until it reaches the necessary density and starts a nuclear fusion. The polar lights, a plasma produced by the interaction between the solar radiation and the Earth’s atmosphere, then symbolises the sun born from that nuclear fusion. Then comes the planets’, and Earth’s, formation, then obviously the condensation of water, and finally life itself.
As the first frame of the movie was telling us that « life in space is impossible« , this final step appears as a reminder that it is possible « to do the miracles of one only thing. » And to pursue the alchemical symbolism, it is worth noting that the way this cosmogony is told is consistent with its « macrocosmical » nature. Be it the clouds in the atmosphere, the polar lights, the strip of land or the splash of water on the camera’s lens, it is told through something with which Ryan Stone does not interact, something completely external to her own personal journey.
The second cosmogony is about humankind. But instead of trying to retell the scientific evolution of humankind, Gravity is interested in a more symbolic and spiritual story. At the beginning of the movie, Ryan Stone is working on the Hubble space telescope. After being hit by the wreckage, she and Kowalski go to inspect the Explorer shuttle and the camera shows a toy figure of the Looney Tunes character, Marvin the Martian, floating in space. Later, on the way to the International Space Station, Kowalski keeps asking questions until Stone finally accepts to talk about herself. She explains that there is no place where she feels at home. Usually, when she leaves work, she gets in her car, put on the radio and drives. She does not care which radio station or destination. She just drives. Her life is defined by this meaningless wandering. On a spiritual level, at that moment, Stone is not human, she’s not even alive. She’s just an inert rock, roving through space. She’s a stranger to Earth and to life itself. When she reaches the ISS, she starts to evolve. She becomes an embryo but she’s not a human yet. She is just the potentiality of a human life. That notion is quite clearly expressed by the foetal position she takes after getting out of her space suit, but it is also suggested by two less obvious but nonetheless important elements. The first one is a copy of the Vitruvian Man pinned to a wall of the ISS. The Vitruvian Man is Leonardo Da Vinci’s representation of the « ideal Man », an expression that needs to be understood both as « the perfect Man » but also as « Man as an idea » in the Platonic sense. The second one is the shot where Ryan Stone is looking at the cloud spiral through the porthole. Instead of showing both Stone herself and the porthole in the same frame, the camera only shows the porthole. As a result, we don’t see Stone, we only see her reflection, that is, only a disembodied, ethereal version of herself… like a not-yet fully fleshed out idea.
The meaning of Creation
This is also at that moment that Gravity starts to expose its humanist claim to justify the aforementioned macroscopic cosmogony. Leonardo da Vinci’s goal, when drawing the Vitruvian Man, was to depict the perfect Man whose dimensions match the specifications decreed by the Roman architect Vitruvius. For da Vinci, representing a Perfect Man or, in alchemical terms, a perfect microcosm, was congruent to the representation of a perfect macrocosm. As such, his work was contributing to the celebration and the advent of a perfect universe. In this respect, The Vitruvian Man is an illustration of Hermes Trismegistus’ doctrine that puts humankind at the centre of the drawing and of the universe. The creation of the universe is justified by the creation of humankind as its final purpose and, through his work, an artist such as Leonardo da Vinci contributes to this double Creation.
That said, at that stage of the story, Ryan Stone still has to become fully human to be able to give meaning to the Creation. After escaping from the ISS fire, she’s finally alive but she’s not human yet. When trapped in a fuel-less Soyuz, she starts using the radio and manages to contact an Inuit man. Even though they don’t understand each other because of the language barrier, she starts talking, insisting on the fact that she comes from Earth. After spending most of the movie completely indifferent about her home, she finally starts to reconnect to Earth and recognises herself as an earthling. But she still can’t communicate with another human being. So, when she hears a dog howling behind the man’s chatter, she starts imitating it before the Inuit man interrupts the communication. She then resigns herself to die and falls unconscious.
When she wakes up, she decides to fight for her life and, as she turns on the Soyuz’ landing rockets to move it towards the Chinese space station, she acknowledges Kowalski’s death and asks him to give her last goodbye to her deceased daughter. That moment, probably the most moving scene of the movie, marks the end of Stone’s grief and her rebirth as a living human. Quite significantly, that transformation happens in front an orthodox icon of St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers.
Of course, as the patron saint of travellers, St Christopher appears as a relevant protector for Ryan Stone. But it is worth focusing on more obscure details about his legend. For instance, even if it’s not the case in the movie, St Christopher was regularly represented on orthodox icons with a dog’s head. He also gained his sainthood by carrying the Child Jesus on his shoulder to help him cross a river. These two elements resonate with Ryan Stone imitating a dog and then moving beyond the status of a simple animal by asking Kowalski to help her daughter Sara to journey safely through the Other Side. As she’s talking to Kowalski, she starts activating the Soyuz controls. At that very moment, she is following the example of St Christopher: she becomes a traveller. She’s not wandering anymore; she now has a destination set by her own volition. She is finally fully alive. This rebirth also evokes another aspect of St Christopher’s legend. After helping Jesus cross the river, he roamed the world to spread the gospel. To convert new followers, he was given a gift. He could make his staff blossom. He could literally bring a dead object back to life.
At that stage, Ryan Stone is finally a human but her symbolic journey doesn’t end here. Humanity in itself is still a means to an end. It’s barely a source of energy, just like the sun that just appeared in the parallel macroscopic cosmogony. That energy must be channelled and focused towards the full accomplishment of its potential. This step will start in the Chinese capsule that brings Stone back to Earth and under the protection of a specific deity, a Budai. It is a common mistake to think that this plump and jovial character is a depiction of the most well-known buddha, Siddhārtha Gautama. But it is actually a completely different person. According to the Chinese version, Budai was an eccentric chan monk who lived and achieved enlightenment at the beginning of the 10th century. The specificity of chan, of which Budai is a symbol, is to teach that every human being carries a Buddha within themselves and that they are already enlightened. They just haven’t realised it yet.
As she is falling towards Earth, Ryan Stone does realise it. Her will to survive is not dictated by her animal instinct anymore. She tries to survive because she finally acknowledged that her life has value. As she puts it, whether she makes it or not, it was « a hell of a ride. »
Having achieved her potential, Ryan Stone finally has to shed her old skin. As she escapes the Chinese capsule, her space suit is weighing her down towards the bottom of the lake. What was until now a protection, a cocoon, is becoming a hindrance. She has to get rid of it and to finish her journey as a truly accomplished human. As she stands on the bank of the lake, she watches the living world in front of her. As we will see, by simply being there, a human gazing at the universe, she finally serves her existential purpose.
Your eyes in
The gaze direction
According to Guillermo del Toro, Gravity‘s producers wanted to end the movie with some helicopters coming to rescue Ryan Stone. When Cuarón refused, they asked for some radio device to transmit her coordinates. He refused again. It is quite telling that Cuarón wanted that his character’s last action was to look around, and nothing more, as that gaze in itself appears as the real purpose of Cuarón humanist philosophy.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Gravity was lauded for its visuals and its mise en scène. More specifically, the long uninterrupted shot at the beginning of the movie and the virtuosic camera movements throughout the film gathered a lot of attention. Yet none of these directing choices were ever gratuitous. Their purpose is not solely to immerse and impress the audience. They also contribute to an almost metaphysical questioning about gaze and its purpose. For Gravity, the human look is the universe’s ultimate purpose. The universe becomes meaningful by having humans looking at it. That idea, which is not surprising coming from a director as obsessed about framing as Cuarón, emphasizes the imperative of adopting the right outlook to give the universe a proper and just meaning.
In Gravity, this question is explored through the opposition of two kinds of perspectives, Stone’s and Kowalski’s. From the very first scene, Kowalski is amazed by the sight of space. Even though he’s a very experienced astronaut, he still enjoys looking at the spectacle of the universe. On the other hand, Ryan Stone is afraid to look. She needs to put a barrier between herself and what she’s watching. In her professional life, she is a specialist in medical imaging and she was sent into space to work on the Hubble space telescope. As a side note, this detail implying that medical imaging is somehow similar to space observation appears as another reference to the alchemic correspondence between the microcosm and the macrocosm. When she leaves work, she immediately takes shelter in her car where she can watch the world through her windshield. When Kowalski asks her what she likes in space, she doesn’t answer « the view » like him but « the silence« . When the Explorer shuttle is destroyed and Stone is ejected into space, the focus of the communication between her and Kowalski is about what she sees and what she doesn’t see, with mostly close-ups on her eyes.
Logically, the evolution of her character will also induce a change in the way she looks at the world. As she will develop into a human being, her gaze will become grounded in matter and flesh to become a truly human gaze. This association of gaze and evolution is also visually present in the movie as, on the wall of the ISS, next to the Vitruvian Man, we can also see a portrait of Isaac Newton and a picture of Charles Darwin. Newton obviously evokes his theory of gravity, but he was also one of the founding fathers of optics, something that is emphasised by the portrait appearing in the movie.
It is no coincidence that Ryan Stone spends the first half of the movie trying to hold onto something. Like herself, her gaze is wandering, aimless. Not yet grounded in matter, it’s free and out of control. As the subjective shot of Stone spinning endlessly in space shows, that freedom is not liberating but terrifying. As in her normal life, Stone is afraid to see because she doesn’t have anything to hold onto anymore. Her gaze will then have to be progressively embodied and this progress will even happen at a filmmaking level. At the beginning of the movie, Sandra Bullock only plays Ryan Stone’s head. The rest of her body is made using CGI. When she reaches the ISS, the actor is filmed as a whole but she still doesn’t control her movements. To shoot the scenes in the ISS, her limbs were tied to cables and her body was articulated by technicians acting like puppet masters. It’s only when she arrives on Earth and becomes a fully accomplished human being that Ryan Stone is finally played by a complete and free Sandra Bullock. It is worth noting that, to highlight the character’s new truly organic gaze, Alfonso Cuarón and his DP, Emmanuel Lubezki, decided to shoot that last scene on natural location and using 70mm film instead of digital.
Matthew Kowalski’s gaze is the complete opposite to Ryan Stone’s. His is not afraid. It’s ecstatic, almost angelic. Kowalski contemplates the universe and praises its glory. Like for Ryan Stone, the character’s name mirrors that purpose. St Matthew is the one of the four evangelists and his symbol is a man or an angel, which is ironically consistent with the song that Kowalski keeps on listening to: Angels are Hard To Find by Hank Williams Jr. The long shots where the camera smoothly wanders through space, without caring about up and down, reflects his own careless and joyful gaze as the character moves freely thanks to his suit’s propellers.
As a consequence, it was impossible for Kowalski to go back on Earth. In the first scene, he was the only one not being attached to the Explorer shuttle. He is not bound to matter. He doesn’t belong to the ground. Which is why he had to cut the rope linking him to Ryan Stone. As an angelic figure, he could not follow her on her journey back to Earth… but that didn’t mean he couldn’t still help her by coming back as an hallucination or a phantom.
If Ryan Stone is the object of an alchemical process, Kowalski is the angelic alchemist. His last name is a Polish name meaning « smith » or « blacksmith » and, as the historian of religion Mircea Eliade pointed out in his book The Forge and the Crucible, early blacksmiths’ symbolic function was really close to the alchemy. Kowalski’s purpose is to forge a crown, a « ryan stone« , from a rhinestone.
Just as the creation of humankind was justifying the creation of the universe in Gravity‘s cosmogonical narrative, the creation of Ryan Stone’s gaze is justifying her own evolution. It is now time to try to figure out what determines this gaze.
From human to divine
Many critics compared Gravity and 2001: A Space Odyssey, unsurprisingly almost never in favour of the former. It is true that Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is a tough act to follow. But one of the most peculiar argument against Cuarón’s movie was that 2001 would promote an outward gaze and invite the audience to explore the unknown, whereas Gravity would be longing for a kind of self-centred retreat towards Earth and our own self. Personally, I am not convinced that the former attitude would be more morally and aesthetically valid than the latter… all the more when, following Gravity‘s logic, this retreat into one’s self is akin to an exploration of the macrocosm. That said, it is true that Gravity and 2001 are based on two different gazes. Throughout its course, 2001 adopts a firm, static, deliberate gaze. It’s HAL 9000’s gaze. It pierces through men and space. It is a male gaze, according to the definition in Alan Moore’s Promethea: « This is because magicians, irrespective of their gender, are male. Their symbol is the wand, the male member, because they are that which seeks to penetrate the mystery. » The male phallic symbol is even present in 2001, from the bone used by the monkey at the end of the first part, to Bowman’s spaceship’s elongated shape, and finally to the birth of a Star-Child after the fertilization of a space-time tunnel.
In contrast, Gravity‘s gaze is female as the movie’s themes are linked to the figure of the mother goddess. As a symbol of motherhood and of life overcoming death, the mother goddess holds a soft and compassionate gaze. Just as the Grail was the feminine counterpart of the masculine spear in Wagner’s Parsifal, Gravity doesn’t oppose 2001 so much than it completes it.
As Alan Moore wrote, still in Promethea, « Particles, organisms, planets and suns, it’s all about attraction. It’s how everything holds together. […] The Tree of Life. And Venus is the only planetary symbol that completely reprises its shape. They say it’s because that’s the principle the entire universe is founded on: love. » This notion of love as a universal force of attraction or, reciprocally of gravity’s attraction as an expression of universal love, is central to Cuarón’s work. It appears not only in Gravity but also in Children Of Men and Roma, two movies where the world falls into chaos for a lack of feminine compassion. Even if Gravity is less overtly politicized, it advances the same point of view only on a more fundamental level. By doing so, it consecrates Alfonso Cuarón as a director focused on an almost metaphysical quest for the right framing, the right point of view, the right mise–en-scène… the one that would help our angered and frightened outlook into a much needed all-embracing and all-loving outward gaze.
 The source of that is likely a translation mistake where « cananeus » (Canaanite, from Canaan) was mixed up with « canineus » (canine).
 A Buddhist school, precursor of zen.
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