Gravity: Does Ryan Stone Survive?

gravity-movie-posterSPOILER ALERT!

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.

 

Sandra Bullock

Sandra Bullock

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.

 

George Clooney, stars as a hallucination in "Gravity".

George Clooney stars as part of a hallucination in “Gravity”.

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.

 

The Hubble Telescope, another star of the film "Gravity".

The Hubble Telescope, another star of the film “Gravity”.

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.

 

The International Space Station.

The International Space 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.

 

Bullock enters the Tiāngōng, but she would not have been the first woman to do so.  Liu Yang, China's first female astronaut, was the first woman to board the satellite.

Bullock enters the Tiāngōng, but she would not have been the first woman to do so. Liu Yang, China’s first female astronaut, was the first woman to board the satellite.

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.

 

Unlike "A Tale Of Two Sisters", there are no reliable narrators in "Gravity" who can validate Stone's narrative.

Unlike “A Tale Of Two Sisters”, there are no reliable narrators in “Gravity” who can validate Stone’s narrative.

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 UninvitedThere 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.

 

Gravity co-stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

Gravity co-stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

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.

 

sandra-bullock-gravity-fetalSome 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.

Alfonso Cuarón, writer and director of "Gravity".

Alfonso Cuarón, writer and director of “Gravity”.

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.

 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. 1) If you listen carefully you can hear Kowalski refer to the mission as STS-157. Since the space shuttle program ended with STS-135 we can assume that Gravity takes place in an alternate future where the shuttle program continued. Given that NASA averaged about 3 shuttle missions a year we can also assume that if the program continued then STS-157 would have launched around 2018, giving the Chinese plenty of time to expand Tiāngōng and add a lifeboat especially if it was just a carbon copy of the Soyuz.

    2) If Stone does if fact die early on in the narrative then why does her mind continue to manufacture crises? I can understand dealing with the space debris, but the fact that she nearly drowns seems over the top. Why didn’t her mind just allow her to reach Earth safely rather than throwing in one more possible moment where she had to survive?

  2. It is possible this narrative takes place in the future. That said, that is only ONE of the MANY inconsistencies and does not dispel the fact that Stone is an unreliable narrator. The hallucination makes her perspective unreliable. This, combined with all of the ‘inaccuracies’ suggests SOMETHING is going on. The trip from Hubble to the ISS and then from the ISS to the Chinese space station? The scene where Kowalski has to unteather himself? These things still don’t add up, even if some of the other examples can be explained.

    As to why her mind might create further crises, there are a number of potential reasons. Our minds create problems subconsciously and then try to resolve them. This is what happens every night when we sleep. Dreams, or nightmares often feature crises and unbelievable situations. For me, the movie was a existentialist journey. Her subconscious was working out issues which her conscious mind could not. As to the length of the narrative, the mind unfolds narratives that seem to be minutes long in durations in a mere split second. Our mind is faster than the speed of light. This link with the existentialist view seems clear to me. There are constant reinventions of the defining traits for each person. Their identities constantly redefined. Stone goes from mother to childless; from doctor to astronaut; from victim of circumstance to survivor. Kowalski, whose last name is appropriate from the film Vanishing point which was also an existentialist film about a person on a journey of survival, also goes through these transformations. He is at once a husband, and then suddenly single.

    This isn’t the only way to view the film of course. There are other ways, but this is the only way that accounts for the inaccuracies in the film without simply casting them aside as mistakes, and it is the only interpretation that takes into account the fact that NO other characters verify Stone’s experience and considers the implication of Stone’s hallucinations and the fact that Houston no less than twice alerted her that she had a medical issues which was not addressed for the duration of the film afterwards.

  3. Hi Jason
    Came to your site to read on your analysis of the Stallone tweet about Willis which was an excellent commentary of why Stallone was wrong to send that tweet. Then came across your essay on the alternative interpretation of the film Gravity which was amazing. I’m one of those regular film goers that just saw Gravity as an ‘action space adventure” with a happy Hollywood ending. It is common for ‘space adventure’ movies to go loose with the science so it is easy to think there is no alternate theme here; however your essay really blew my mind If you have accurately captured what Cuarón was doing, then it almost makes Sixth Sense like child’s play! Wow – that was a great analysis of a film! :-)

  4. Thanks for your kind words Andre. I appreciate you taking the time to both read my work and share a comment. As to what Cuaron was really doing… who knows. I’m not sure that I’m right, but I think it is fun to try and look at films in a different way. The film is entertaining without that, but I always like to approach works like this as if it were a mystery to be solved.

  5. KarenMichelle Lane says:

    Jason,

    I must admit I do concur in your analysis of the film. I think however the journey for Dr. Ryan Stone ended with the power-down of the air supply aboard the fuelless Soyuz spacecraft. The last anchor scene / goodbye to all things earthly being her conversation with Aningaaq and while not understanding each other, the fact that they share this moment together as he mourns for his soon to be “put out of his misery” sled dog [that she howls for without knowing] as she soon after decides to release herself from her own plight by allowing the CO2 to lull her to sleep.

    I do reserve the right to change my mind later as I struggle to come up with a way that an adrenaline rush from a dream could have awaken her enough to turn up the air processing in the Soyuz once again…to fight for her life by hitching a ride on the return ship attached to the falling Chinese Space Station.

    On a side note, Alfonso Cuarón’s depiction of the re-entry of the Tiāngōng space station [along with the dramatic music score] was the long awaited memorial on film to all those who have given their lives in pursuit of the exploration of space. I cried throughout that whole sequence remembering them.

  6. I don’t think Stone is ever actually in space. I think she is driving and trying to fight her panic/anxiety disorder stemming from the time her daughter died. The entire story is a symbol for the way she overcomes that grief. The characters in space (clooney) are defense mechanisms she has developed to fight her panic attacks. When she is left with just herself, she realizes she can use these components of herself productively to fight her feelings of loneliness and grief. She goes through several rebirths and is baptized in fire, air and water. The meaning of the story is to show that in order to overcome her grief, she needed to face her greatest fears, let go of her defense mechanisms, and go through hell to be reborn a new transcended person.
    She doesn’t die. She overcomes her trauma to go on. There is no NASA. She’s a doctor in illinois.

  7. Thanks for the great post! I appreciate your thoughts. I’m curious as to how you link these things together though.

  8. The man on the radio she speaks to (there’s a baby, they howl like a dog) is speaking French, not Chinese.

  9. Hello Jason,
    I loved your post. Although I did consider the possibility that Ryan Stone died at some point of the movie (I even thought she was going to see a little girl at the shore of the lake she lands at) I like to think of the movie as a fight for survival & the overcoming of problems in life.
    Director Cuarón has said that he had to take some ‘liberties’ in order for the story to work; also he said that they looked for the latest technology in NASA to make it as truthful to reality as possible. Also the velocity of the debris of 50,000 miles per hour was not given by Houston, it was given by Kowalski (another point for your hallucination theory), Houston actually says at first that the debris is traveling at 20,000 miles per hour (i don’t know if this is consistent with the 90 minutes required to go around the world). Anyway, i like the genius of Cuarón to make it hard to tell if she’s dead or alive or just imagining things. The point of the movie is to show how one can be reborn by overcoming tragedies.

    Awesome post man. Thanks for that.

  10. Stone is in fact on her own journey of grief and loss. She has become untethered from human existence due to the tragic loss of her daughter. This movie takes place in her mind no where else. The music and sound that is heard periodically through the film attest to this. ” As long as they aren’t talking I’m driving.” She has no faith, no connection to anyone and works in a lab in the basement of a hospital. Said hospital, if her daughter could have reached it, could not have saved her. Stone must save her self from losing anymore connection she has with the world. Her whole journey is one that people take when experiencing catastrophic loss. The science behind the movie in reality really doesn’t matter because it really doesn’t exist. Stone opts to re-engage with a new life after loss. The loss of her identity as a mother, loss of her belief and loss of connection. Saying a small thank you prayer before getting up and learning to walk again. Wish my god looked like George Clooney.. maybe he does….

  11. I have just come out of the cinema having watched Gravity for the second time, this time noticing the umbilical cord coming out of Ryans stomach as she enters the air lock. Then it hit me, she did die and this is a rebirth. When she returns to earth, you can see she starts to walk towards a hut in the distance. I wonder if that is Adam in there? The scene also reminds me of the opening of Promethius, when the alien seeds the virgin planet.

    Thanks for writing this article, you have quite accurately presented the same conclusions I came too, its nice to see my thoughts in words!

  12. When Dr. Stone makes her way from the water to the earth, it is also worth remembering that she is struggling to stand not simply to portray evolution but also, from a purely pragmatic point of view, because she is suddenly feeling the force of gravity after time spent in weightlessness; and needs to readjust.

    This would explain the smile which appears on her face as she struggles to stand up on her first attempt. She smiles because gravity represents not only her return to earth but also a return to the notion of her existence, or existence in general, being rooted in, or tethered to something.

  13. In my opinion the process of the death of Dr. Stone started when she lost consciousness by turning down the supply of oxygen. The death itself occured at the end of the movie. I though it was the moment when in water she got rid of the space suit.

    I do not care about how real the film is. The movie was made as a vehicle for those awesome pictures. The movie followed its own reality and for a Hollywood movie the provided reality seemed good to me.

    But from the moment she regains consciousness this reality becomes very sloppy. This indicated a change for me and I put it down to the unconscious mind making up her rescue. I cannot figure the “eenie meenie mo” in the reality setting of the first half of the movie. Same applies to the fire extinguisher. The scene where she gets rid of the space suit in seconds is so sloppy it just cannot be meant like this. This is the moment where I guess she died.

    I put it to the benefit of the movie that I started to make up my mind a bit. On the other hand it all seemed a bit like Hollywood kitsch and I was in parts embarassed to see it. On the other hand I don’t have a better ending in mind. I intend to watch the movie again in a couple of days. i am eager to see if there are any clues I have missed the first time. I have to say that I like the idea of her immediate death too.

  14. Joan Brevard says:

    I have seen this movie 5 times now and gone back and forth on whether she died or lived. What keeps dragging me back to the interpretation that she died is the literary device of the “unreliable narrator” (which you discuss) and the story where it was first used (at least to such a remarkable extent): “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge”. Written by Ambrose Bierce and adapted into a film (in French) that was shown on “The Twilight Zone”, the main character easily escapes from ropes binding his hands and feet while underwater after the noose meant to hang him inexplicably breaks and he falls into the river. We see his escape and return to his home and wife. But then we are jerked — with him — back into reality. The hanging actually happened and everything we saw in the movie about his escape were his imaginings. I thought that Ryan’s easy struggle at the end to get out of her suit while under the water was a direct reference to this story/film. However, I am still not sure how far to take that parallel.

  15. Fascinating analysis. I am buying everything you’re selling. It makes the movie more interesting. The title “Gravity” is a metaphor for what roots us to this world. We were watching Stone (another metaphor) experience her journey from drifting to stability. I like the dream or nightmare comparison – this movie was very much dream-like. Good job!

  16. Nardo Polo says:

    For fuck’s sake!!! Doesn’t anybody go to the movies just to enjoy a good story anymore? Who cares what the writer/director means? What he ultimately intends is to make a damn payday. And he succeeded regardless of any inaccuracies or plot metaphors. Any explanations or interpretations don’t mean shit. So just take it at face value and go on with your life.

  17. Rambler Rambler says:

    Nardo Polo, I must say, that is the laziest reading of a film I have ever heard. If you think the director’s only intention is to make money, then you simply do no understand art.

    Explanation and interpretations, like the film, DO mean something. That is what makes a story a GOOD story. Just because you are too lazy to try and grasp or understand the multiple layers of a narrative, doesn’t mean they are there, or that they are not important.

    You are either a troll, or a moron. If you want people to respect you, try keeping silent.

  18. Watched the film last night with my 11 year old who has just started watching proper grown up movies, at the end he said, ‘ her daughter and that George Clooney guy are going to be on the beach waiting for her,’ this was his instinctual response to the film as someone who hasn’t seen 2001 or any of those twist ending ones you mention. I think you’re definitely onto something here. We both just assumed she died when she turned her oxygen off. There’s also the astronaut at the beginning with the dented visor, presumably hit by a ‘bullet’ from the satellite, face still more or less intact – in space? That doesn’t happen does it?

  19. I just finished watching it now and was curious to see what others thought of the meaning behind it. I think that if you look too deeply into it you can connect dots and it looks like something different. Of course that’s the beauty of a film like this, creating a talking point and alternative theories, but at the end of the day they are just that, theories. Because of that you will never really know what is the correct meaning as intended by the Director because he/she won’t tell you their OWN explanation, it would lose all the intrigue and discussion that it has garnered.

    For me it was a film about humility. Watching Ryan Stone looking down on earth, on you and me, over 7 billion of us, and watching ONE person survive against impossible odds and survive at the end just illustrates how fragile we are as the human race. We are a speck of sand compared to the vastness of space, we have absolutely no clue as to why we exist. We think we know everything and it ends with us but we haven’t even chipped the iceberg.

    It made the worries, trials and tribulations seem like nothing in the grand scheme of things. Fantastic film.

  20. Arvind Motha says:

    Hi Jason, this is an awesome post. Never thought from these angles when watching the movie. I just went back home amazed at how she was the sole survivor despite the trauma that she goes through… Thanks for opening our minds!

    All the inaccuracies lead to the conclusion that Stone was purely imagining stuff and eventually dies. But whether she was actually in space or not is a big question that is left to be answered. Wonder what Alfonso has to say for your theory!!

  21. Thanks for taking the time to read my post! I am looking forward to picking up a copy of the DVD to listen to the audio commentary (if it has one). I’m curious myself.

  22. William R. Cousert says:

    If she died, why wasn’t their a reunion with the other dead astronauts at the end of the movie?

  23. mwwilson26 says:

    Through the first part of the movie, I thought I was watching a story about survival in a weightless environment and the unique challenges of being without Gravity. As the movie went on though, I started to notice the inconsistencies. The first part of the movie seemed so realistic, like how it would actually be in a weightless environment. I’m no physics major, but Kowalski should not have been putting that much strain on the ropes, once she stopped the inertia of his drift, there should have been no forces pulling at him. From then on I was picking it apart and was getting the feeling of inconsistencies and that something else was going on. When Kowalski showed up at the escape pod and just opened the door, I knew that was an intentional inconsistency. Of course, that was explained away by her hallucination, but made me start thinking the other inconsistencies I noticed were also by design. By the end when she wiggled out of the space suit and crawled up on the beach, it was obvious this was not reality. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I had to investigate. Your interpretation matches my suspicions, so Thank You for putting this out there. Very thought provoking.

  24. Why does Hubble need medical equipment installed? I don’t think she ever was in space to be honest. And I don’t believe it cheapens the story at all. Excellent piece of writing here! I especially liked the points about her being an unreliable narrator.

  25. Great writing and very well thought out. I wonder if Kowalski ever really interacted with Stone much at all. He didn’t even appear to know where she was from. Stone may have been using him as some sort of mental or psychological impetus to overcome her lack of confidence and knowledge, although I can see the alternate viewpoints.

    Art is not about forcing one’s intentions about a work on others. Art is about putting something out there, certainly from a subjective viewpoint, but once art is out there, it is, and the creator has no more right to claim any definitive meaning for the work than does the consumer. John Lennon may have truly believed that certain songs of his were about certain things, but human motivations are myriad, as are their interpretations.

    Cuaron himself has been gracious enough to admit that his views about the movie are in no way definitive.

  26. It was a decent movie, why is everyone reading so deeply into this? She couldn’t reply to Houston when landing in the lake because it was on fire and full of smoke. She then almost drowned because water in heavy suit. She got out of it and floated to shore. She couldn’t stand up because she was in space for an extended period of time. Remember how they would sit in the Space Shuttle after it landed for hours to acclimate to the gravity? Yeah Stone didn’t have that luxury.

  27. Rambler Rambler says:

    I think people ‘read so deeply’ because the film has a lot of depth. There is nothing wrong with simply enjoying it as a suspenseful survival story, but there is more to the film than the surface narrative and there is nothing wrong with people exploring that.

  28. William R. Cousert says:

    Simple solution – ask the writers! Did she die? Was the end a hallucination or the afterlife?

  29. I don’t adopt to prescribed readings, most especially from the author. I hate closed readings.

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