Some of the most powerful — and widely popular movie crazes — in recent years have pointed to the fact we’re all feeling a bit existential lately. Movies like Wall-E, Avatar, Earth, Food, Inc., the list could go on and on — all deal in some way with why we’re seemingly out to destroy ourselves and our planet. We seem to want movies to force us to look inward. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? Why are we humans so morally bankrupt? How did we become so profoundly unappealing as a species? How can we change?
The latest in this trend, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, is similarly profound, and a splendid visual creation, but this time offers a new spin on the transcendental journey. It’s a look at the meaning of life that speaks directly to parents.
Fittingly, the movie revolves around a man and a woman. They are not parents together, not a couple, but represent a sort of perfect manifestation of the ideas of “man” and “woman.”
“She,” is Ryan Stone, a bio-medical engineer (Sandra Bullock) and “he” is a veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who is there to guide her mission. When the mission is thrown into disaster and matters of life and death become very real suddenly, we come to know that Stone has nobody to return to down on planet Earth. Back on Earth, in fact, she lost the only thing that truly mattered to her — her daughter. The most heart-wrenching moments that follow are not about whether she’ll get back to Earth, but if she’ll realize that her life truly has no meaning and that she’ll give up trying to survive. The journey she goes on is tremendous — literally traversing thousands of miles and spiritually making peace with the death of her daughter. She does choose life, and in the end is thrust back down to earth to crawl out of water onto land and symbolically be born again as a parent, and a childless adult.
The role that George Clooney plays and the way in which he embodies it is great on many levels. He, as Kowalski, keeps Stone on course, keeps her safe, gives her direction. He brings her to safety more than once before selflessly disengaging his tether from her and floating away to eternity and his death — so that she might live. Maybe Kowalski is a real man, maybe he is meant to be the voice of God personified. What’s for certain is Clooney is a genuine Clark Gable, a John Wayne, a Jimmy Stewart for our day. He is not only a perfect hero: handsome, charming, good under pressure, witty, profound, selfless — he is a kind of man we rarely see portrayed in movies now: Uncomplicated, kind, spunky. He is at the enlightened end of his own personal journey and is fully capable of being an aid to those around him. He is a hero in the old fashioned sense — a fully whole man, confident, who selflessly tries to save his fellow shipmates, including a modern, intensely capable, Doctor-damsel in distress. It’s refreshing to see a cowboy of this ilk on the contemporary screen — an untormented, pure, singularly good person.
Whether the movie is scientifically realistic has been debated by real life astronauts in the media since its release, and while that’s an interesting point of curiosity, the movie is so perfect a parable that it seems quite irrelevant whether the story could or would happen in “real life.” Gravity was called the “best space film ever” by Avatar and Titanic creator James Cameron — high praise indeed. It is a great space film, but it’s also a visual poem, and one should not get too blinded by the science.