...Of Mythic Proportions


Golden Globe Winner Alfonso Cuaron

Best Director: Gravity

This post focuses on specific stages of the hero's journey as seen through film Gravity , a movie that is, simply, a towering achievement.


How They DID It!


48 year old Bullock gives the performance of a lifetime (with George Clooney providing grounded support) notwithstanding the magnificent tech work.

What is left to say about Gravity, other than the fact that it is the BEST Movie of 2013?  Well, notwithstanding potentially contentious elements of the film: the script, such as: The backstory is cliché, the dialogue isn’t anything exciting, and so on. But a script is more than dialogue, Gravity  is executed magnificently well.

So, then, let’s examine the story Gravity  is actually telling.  Its Themes are: Parents and children, Letting go, Despair, of rebirth and Hope.

The Monomyth has become something of a dirty word in certain circles. It’s too formulaic. Too taken over by Hollywood. Too…familiar. And yet there’s a simplicity to the anthropological approach, the discoveries in the Monomyth are revolutionary, and unifying: all over the world, we all tell the same stories. We all seek the same encounter, the atonement with our parents. We all feel the same call to adventure – to explore, to go beyond our boundaries – and we feel the same fear that causes us, often as not, to refuse that call. We all have our own dragons to defeat. And we all want that happy ending. In the end, we are telling many variations on the same story. There are few things as global as the Hero’s Journey (The Monomyth).

That makes it a rather appropriate structure for a film whose backdrop is the entire planet.
Incorporating the call to adventure, the guide, the boons, the loss of the guide, the threshold crossing, the belly of the whale, the road of trials, the trip through the underworld, the apotheosis, the atonement and return. By and large, they’re all there – and the Cuaróns are doing it without calling attention to it. This is just the structure on which they hang their story – but, hey, if it works.

When we first meet Ryan, she is a sick-to-her-stomach newbie, easy to panic, frustrated, clipped, and shut off. She is constantly in motion, never letting up and about visual storytelling). Her call to adventure comes when she is quite literally hurled into chaos. Up until this point, she has been always on the move, but she’s been in control of it, locked down.

So she’s gone on a Hero’s Journey, why did she need to? Well, because at the beginning, she was in motion. In Dr. Stone’s backstory: Stone was driving when her daughter died and since then, she’s never stopped driving. She’s driven straight off the face of the Earth, in fact. She’s always in motion, never stopping and facing her grief.

Gravity is a story written by a father and a son. So it is appropriate that it is about a mother and a daughter. The daughter was taken by gravity, and gravity both endangers and saves the mother. The mother is reduced visually to an infantile state, and emotionally to a childlike one, before taking the bold jump into adulthood, facing the unknown and overcoming it. 

The mother becomes the daughter, and invokes her both as reason to die, and, ultimately, as reason to live.

Consider the moment in the Soyuz, where Ryan tries to communicate non-English speaking ham radio operator. Her dialogue begins as complicated, trying to explain to him what’s going on, but slowly breaks down to guttural barks of desperation – it is her moment Despair, a moment that she loses even the ability to communicate. 

In our own moments of fear, we regress, we curl up, and we wait for it to be over. Or we run. These are hard-wired, primitive emotions. They are childlike. And they are what Ryan must overcome.
We are lost, adrift. Sound familiar? 
Like in the scene where she removes her spacesuit and goes into  a fetal position.
Cuarón isn’t really being subtle here at all. This is not a survival story about what it would be like to be trapped in outer space. It’s about surviving something much more prosaic and much more destructive.

Adulthood, then, is represented by the paternal Matt Kowalski. Like Ryan, also always is in motion, always having total control over where he is going. He chooses his own path, whether it’s to recover their fellow astronaut’s body, or ultimately sacrifice himself for Stone. An adult faces the difficult choices, the hard moments, and moves on. It is in the letting go that she attains mastery over her environment, and herself.

Well, sure, we sympathize with a woman in a difficult situation. But we empathize with a character who’s in a difficult situation partially of her own making (and Dr. Stone is, having fled so far from her grief as to have left the planet). 

 hese emotions bind her more strongly to us. We don’t know how we would cope in the madness and loneliness of space. But we do know how we’d cope with losing someone very important to us.

A parent losing a child is almost perceived as a failure, in one of the most fundamental areas of humanity. Dr. Stone feels it is. Why else would she suggest – almost out of nowhere, before she reveals what happened to her – to Matt that he cut her off so he can live? 

Because in the back of her mind, she thinks she’s failed, useless and no good. She doesn’t think she’s worth saving.
A parent-child relationship is an anchor, a powerful bedrock. 
 When it’s ruptured, it’s easy to feel abandoned and alone, like there is nothing out there to sustain us. We feel a great emptiness when someone we care about passes on. 

Is tacking on a backstory too conventional? Well, that depends on what one means by “too conventional.” But the backstory here is not tacked on – absolutely nothing in this film is. The vast emptiness through which Dr. Stone must travel is the perfect visual metaphor for the loss inside – the loss of any future, of anything beyond simply moving through life without caring what is happening – or what’s on the radio. And thus, when Dr. Stone returns to Earth, it’s no wonder she arrives in a place full of lush greenery. That’s what happens when you accept death – you realize that life is full of magic and possibility. You’ve survived the ordeal, and now you live. You laugh at the mud, and you stand up.

Sometimes a film needs star actors:

Bullock’s backstory of loss brings the viewer emotionally into the film with the bare minimum – Ryan’s discussion of what happened to her daughter reached 100 words. and we never see her, we don’t have lengthy, teary explanations of how much Ryan loved her. Just the facts. And then we move on, the purpose having been fulfilled. Into her daughter, we can now read our own emotions – It is the bedrock on which the film rests. 

Gravity  is a relentless film that introduces a key point: it is relentless because it quite literally does not stop moving. They are, after all, called motion pictures.

At the outset of the film, Ryan is moving, but she cannot control where she goes – jerked around by forces both positive and negative. She is at the mercy of fate – whether it’s her daughter taking a tumble, or the shuttle being destroyed by the shrapnel. 

She has no control over her own life. Matt, on the other hand, is always in control of where he goes. By the end, Ryan has mastered her own movement, and now is able to (Literally) stand on her own two feet, secure in herself and her decision to live.
Cuarón is suggests that this is the key to truly living life: controlling where you go, and not leaving yourself up to the whims of fate, is what gives you freedom.
We are generally trained to “read” film and movement within the frame in certain ways.
Characters placed on the right of the frame are often seen in more favorable light than their counterparts on the left. Similarly, movement from left to right (much like how we in the West read books) is seen as positive – the future is on the right, the past is on the left. This is related to the rule of thirds in painting and photography. But it primarily exists in a 2-dimensional plane.

In Gravity, movement within the frame is uninhibited, demonstrating how much Dr. Stone’s world is off-kilter. Objects can drift up into the frame (as when Matt first catches Ryan). They can hurtle forward out of it (the debris that destroys the International Space Station), or they can even spin in place, dead center, trapped and shrinking (Ryan, after she first falls off the station). This creates a marvelous sense of dynamicism – the sense that we’re almost looking into a window rather than viewing a film. It’s a complete universe Cuarón has invoked here – a sense of items continuing to exist in off-screen space even after they’ve left the scene.

Physics teaches us that objects in motion tend to remain in motion. That is certainly the case in Gravity. Ryan herself is still only three times in the film (the film, incidentally, makes marvelous use of the typical three-act structure: three stations, three key points at which Ryan is still, three debris fields, three “sequences” with Kowalski, etc.). The first is when she enters the ISS womb and rests there, content and quiet. This is the stillness of the protected child, knowing that for the moment, she is safe (an idea which is rapidly proved wrong, and also one which she must herself break if she wishes to be truly safe). There is the stillness of the attempted suicide, an idea whose wrongness is demonstrated by her being on the left side of the frame. And then there is her lying on the beach at the end, laughing in relief at having arrived home. This is the stillness of the woman who has reached the end of her journey, having conquered it. And it is one she herself breaks, choosing to rise and assert her dominance (note that the camera looks up at her, giving her power for the first time in the film). Once again, she is finally in control of her movement.
The camera’s own movement is uninhibited as well. Consider, in my opinion, the film’s most bravura shot, as Dr. Stone (trapped on the left side of the frame, looking desperately to the right for help) falls helplessly away from the shuttle.
The camera focuses on her desperate situation with a cool God’s-eye view, then moves closer and closer as she spins – and then we’re inside her helmet. We’re spinning with her, disoriented and terrified – none of us knows where we are. And then we’re back out, and out – and now she is trapped, dead center, with nowhere to go, spinning helplessly and falling backwards into the black void. In this masterfully daring shot, Cuarón has not only set up our character’s situation and the terrifying stakes if she fails, but brought us into her point of view, and made it ours. 

And the terrible momentum of it has established the film’s own urgency.
Consider a more conventionally shot sequence. When Ryan decides to go to “sleep,” she is on the left side of the frame – she has given in to her past and her fears. 

In the case of Gravity, however, much of the elaboration and development of the film’s themes of movement, of parents and children, of loss and rebirth, exists on the visual level. There is the much-discussed scene of Ryan in the ISS, hovering peaceful and womblike (her head is on the right, indicating she is in a good place for the moment – but she occupies both sides of the frame, showing that she’s still stuck between past and future). 

There is the umbilical cord-like tether keeping Kowalski and Ryan together (which the parent decides to break despite the child’s protest) – an image referenced in the film’s poster. There is Ryan, spinning helplessly and black against the stars – the ultimate visual metaphor for someone lost and alone. There are the moments of stillness discussed above. There is Ryan emerging from the water, crawling and then walking – undergoing human development in minutes into maturity, covered in the muddy afterbirth.

And Cuarón trusts us to see this. He doesn’t need to say anything about it in the dialogue. Instead, he’s done what movies ought to do. He shows us.

Conclusion: Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (the most-cited film when it comes to discussing Gravity)  is a daring leap away from traditional narrative into the mysterious, the incomprehensible, the wondrous. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made.

In the ending of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Mark Hamill attains faith in himself through another intervention by the miraculous, and pulls off the one-in-a-million shot. Again, such instances are are seen throughout the history of human culture.

Of course, we can argue that: Such endings are only in the movies. We know that these things aren’t possible in real life. But there is a part of us that hopes. And that’s why those often are the stories that resonate the longest. 

During our greatest need, we call out to the universe and the universe answers back, and helps us save ourselves. It’s that moment of grace that elevates art to its highest spheres, and make us want to believe.

A story becomes familiar for a reason. And how did storytelling helps us understand things we didn’t, through things we do. The Earth came from a primordial mother and father. And we can overcome the urmoil within ourselves. These things may not, of course, be entirely true. But we like to hear them. 

The best stories are those – the ones where we aggregate achievements the impossible,  helping us believe we can overcome struggle too. The best stories make us believe miracles are possible.
So when the story of Gravity  is called out as having been done before, that’s completely accurate. It is, perhaps, the oldest story in the book. But a good tale is worth telling more than once. It’s how the storyteller chooses to tell it that makes the difference. And Alfonso Cuarón is a master storyteller. 

Gravity  is a magnificent mix of the new and the old – the oldest story, and the highest technology, all combining to tell a tale both personal and universal. At the end, Dr. Ryan Stone stands for all of us who have suffered, have struggled, and overcome. Like her, we can fall, we can be set free, we can be lost. But we can find ourselves. And literally stand up.



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