Recent reviews have heaped great praise on Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and Robert Downey Jr. George Clooney. The production quality of the film is simply unsurpassed in Hollywood. The long, uninterrupted shots serve to heighten the suspense of the film. The acting is efficient and writer/director Alfonso Cuarón demonstrates his knowledge and respect for films which have come before via a number of subtle and clever homages. The story, however, has been criticized. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has pointed out some inaccuracies. However, Tyson’s observations, though accurate, may not be examples of ‘inaccuracies’ in the film. Instead, they may actually be clues planted by Cuarón to give viewers the tools required to dissect the plot.
The story is told from the perspective of Ryan Stone (Bullock): the camera shots often shift from an omniscient view to her own view, and at one point, the audience actually shares a hallucination with her. The unfolding of the plot from Stone’s perspective is important in terms of contextualizing what Tyson has referred to as inaccuracies. Stone, we are told, is not an astronaut. Rather, she is a ‘mission specialist’ who is present because of a special skill set. She is clearly uncomfortable in space and does not have an understanding of how the laws of physics apply in this environment. Hence, any inaccuracies can be attributed to flaws in Stone’s knowledge of physics rather than flaws in the plot. The events are largely a product of Stone’s mind and are not actually happening. Stone, despite what the closing scene of the film suggests, does not actually survive.
Early in the film, while on a spacewalk, Stone is wrenched from the space shuttle by debris. Disoriented, she spins away into darkness. Here is where we encounter the first false note in the screenplay. Lieutenant Matt Kowalski (Clooney) arrives to bring Stone back to the station. Stone has been spinning at a great speed, propelled by the impact of debris, which, we are told, is barreling at speeds equivalent to a bullet. The jetpack which Kowalski uses to retrieve Stone, however, is incapable of reaching such speeds. Kowalski should have been unable to retrieve Stone, even if she could have been located.
Stone and Kowalski head over to the International Space Station (ISS), but the two had been working on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The two satellites are on different orbits and it would have taken six hours for astronauts to travel the distance between the two. Stone and Kowalski, however, cover it in less than an hour. At the space station, Kowalski and Stone are caught on the chords of a parachute. Kowalski expresses concern that should Stone pull him toward her, the chord will break. This is wrong, however, as both would be weightless in space. One tug would have safely brought both Stone and Kowalski closer to the station.
Moreover, the parachute of the escape capsule which Stone enters at the ISS does not have any fuel. Stone accepts her inevitable death and begins to turn the oxygen down so that she can fall asleep and then suffocate to avoid freezing to death. Shortly after she does this, she hallucinates that Kowalski, who casually boasts of beating the record for the longest space walk, returns as he conveniently gives her information she needs to reach Tiāngōng, the Chinese ‘space station’. Stone then comes to, determined to survive. Had she fallen asleep due to a lack of oxygen, however, she would not have been able to wake up, regardless of how motivating her hallucination might have been.
After the initial barrage of debris, Stone endures two more, as the remains of satellites have completed two orbits. But, as we are told, the debris is traveling at 50,000 mph. In order to escape Earth’s gravitational pull, however, such debris only needs to reach 25,000 mph. The initial debris may not have even hit the station, but the second and third showers would certainly not have happened.
Perhaps the biggest issue is Stone’s final escape. Stone travels from the ISS to the… Tiāngōng? In the film, Tiāngōng is described as a space station, but in reality it is only the first piece of a planned space station. The current Tiāngōng satellite consists of a pressurized module and a propulsion module and have a docking mechanism at each end. There is no mention of a capsule like the one Stone escapes in on any of the online sites I could find that describe the Tiāngōng satellite. Without such a capsule, Stone’s escape would have been impossible.
Aside from plot points, it is important to analyse structural elements of the film. When contextualizing an unreliable narrator’s view of things, film audiences must often rely on the perspective of reliable characters in the film. Such is the case for films like: The Sixth Sense, A Tale Of Two Sisters, Fight Club, The Others and The Uninvited. There are no such characters available in Gravity. Upon her imagined re-entry, Stone is contacted by Houston. She does not respond to them, and so, this part of the narrative cannot be validated. The only person who validated her existence throughout the film was Kowalski, and his existence is invalidated because he is revealed to be a hallucination. Though she seems to speak to man speaking something other than English via radio transmission, it is not overtly clear that he is speaking to her as there is a language barrier. When Stone lands on Earth, there is no rescue, as we might typically see at the end of such a film. No living person is present to validate the narrative, just as no living person is present to validate her presence once the debris shower hits.
This leads to the question: When does Stone actually die? The obvious answer seems to be that Stone began to lose oxygen after being untethered from the shuttle and began to hallucinate almost all of the events of the film. This makes sense as most of the inaccuracies occur after this part of the film. However, because the initial debris shower may have been an inaccuracy, Stone’s hallucinations may have begun before that. Far from being the only survivor of the mission, she may have been the only fatality. Houston contacts her before the debris shower and tells her that her temperature is fluctuating and suggests that she is having a medical emergency. Stone denies this and continues on with her work. Houston reasserts that their monitors indicate an issue with Stone’s health, but Stone continues to work anyways. It is only after Houston has mentioned this no less than two times that the debris shower happens. It is possible that Stone passed out and that the entirety of the film afterwards, including the initial debris shower, is a hallucination or dream Stone has before dying. The film ends, not when she finds a safe haven on Earth, but rather, when her consciousness ends.
Some might suggest that such an interpretation cheapens the narrative. If one accepts this interpretation, then he or she might ask: What was the purpose of the film? Such an interpretation is not merely a frivolous surprise ending: Surprise! It was a dream! This film is carefully crafted. It is not simply a dream sequence, but an exploration of the human subconscious. It is the exploration of a mind, who, faced with the mystery of life and death, must make sense of the world. A woman, whose own daughter passed away for no apparent reason at the age of four years, and was brought into this world with no apparent purpose. What was the reason of a life cut short at four years? What, if death is going to take Stone away before she complete this mission, was the purpose of Stone’s life? The film is a journey through the subconscious of a mind trying to make sense of these things. When Stone curls into the fetal position, it is not a simply homage to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is a signal to the audience that Stone is about to be reborn. When she crawls from the water onto the earth, she first fails to stand. She must pull herself up. It is a scene that serves as a metaphor for the evolutionary process. Stone is transcending the physical form and evolving, perhaps her mind is evolving; perhaps she is passing from the physical realm to the spiritual.
It is possible that Cuarón simply made some oversights in the writing of the script, but considering the level of detail that went into this film, and the fact that such large productions often have consultants on set to verify the legitimacy of the details presented on screen, it seems unlikely that the ‘inaccuracies’ that Tyson speaks to were mere oversights. Much as the historical ‘inaccuracies’ present in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village ultimately proved to be clues for the audience to foretell the twist ending; the ‘inaccuracies’ which Cuarón has included in the film may be clues, rather than oversights. Overtly revealing to the audience that the entire film was a hallucination or dream would have bordered on the cliché. Casual audiences would likely have felt cheated and wondered what the purpose was if the entire narrative was a dream. Instead, it seems, Cuarón crafted a unique narrative filled with clues that would allow that casual viewer to enjoy an uplifting survival narrative whilst offering more active viewers enough questions to warrant an investigation. Stone does not survive. She is the only one who dies. Cuarón doesn’t hold your hand and bring you to this conclusion, but rather, he demands your active participation in solving this riddle. Once the riddle is solved, then you can watch the film for what it is: an exploration of the human subconscious grappling with life’s ultimate mystery.