In my review of Alfonso Cuaron's film, Gravity, I offered an interpretation of the film's symbolism. My main idea is that the film is an argument for personal religion. There are several features of the film that strongly suggest this interpretation, and I didn't mention all of them in my last post. Even though I didn't enjoy the film, I think it's worth analyzing to try to see how this message is communicated and also to consider how it might resonate with people without them consciously realizing what the message is about.
First, let's look at some things Cuaron has said about Gravity:
The film was a metaphor of rebirth; literally, at the end, she goes from a fetal position [earlier in the film, when she floats after undressing in the space station], then in the water [shot at Lake Powell, Arizona, with significant postproduction alterations to make it green and lush and butterfly-filled], to come out, crawl, go on her knees, and then stand on her two feet and walk again. You know, it was a bit polemic at some point with some people, with a kind of jaded, more mainstream thing, people saying, “But how do we know that she is going to be fine? How do we know that she is getting safely home? How do we know that she is not going to be kidnapped?” I said, “I don’t care, she is walking now!” I want to believe that if she survived what she survived … she’s equipped to deal with adversities. One film that I love that is in many ways a model — not all the time but many times, and by no means am I comparing the film to this film — but A Man Escaped by Robert Bresson. And that escape film becomes this film where the walls are the metaphysical walls.There are three points I want to stress: First, Cuaron set out to make a movie about a rebirth, which is a spiritual concept. Second, the outcome of the rebirth is that the protagonist is now equipped to deal with adversity. Third, the main obstacles facing the protagonist are metaphysical, not physical. The protagonist's return to earth (to a grounded, upright position, tall against the sky) symbolizes the overcoming of metaphysical obstacles to find the necessary spiritual strength to be a successful and powerful individual. It is, in effect, a motivational film. (That's mainly why I didn't enjoy it, incidentally. I don't like motivational speakers.) And it is motivational in a way that explicitly uses religious icons and ideas, including the idea of an afterlife. This all supports my thesis, which is that the film is an argument for personal religion which romanticizes self-sufficiency and the power of personal determination.
The film opens with written words communicating the idea that life is impossible in space. Space is the antagonist in this film. It represents the spiritual emptiness that Ryan (Sandra Bullock) lives in after her four-year old daughter died. As the film develops, we see many beautiful shots of Earth. We don't see any shots of the moon or any beautiful, seductive shots of other celestial objects. We hardly see any shots of events in space without Earth prominently featured in the background. When we do see characters in space without Earth in the background, it is at key moments when the abyss is threatening to engulf them.
The only beautiful or safe object in space is Earth, though Earth never seems to be in space. We never see any shots of Earth completely surrounded by space. Earth seems bigger than space, which it pushes out of the screen. In this movie, Earth is not really in space at all. It is opposed to space. It is teeming with life, love, beauty, warmth and comfort. And yet, Ryan is incapable of recognizing or even acknowledging it. Matt (George Clooney) mentions it several times, but Ryan never takes notice. She prefers the quiet of empty space. She prefers lifelessness.
As the story begins, Ryan is quickly characterized as a scientific genius. She knows how to take care of her ship, one step ahead of ground control. And yet, she's not healthy. She's weak and should probably not be working. (Interestingly, her physical health never becomes an issue later, when she is struggling for survival. Perhaps her physical ailment at the beginning of the story is just meant to give us a sense of her spiritual weakness. Once she starts overcoming her metaphysical problems, her physical health is no longer a factor.) She is so focused on her work, she doesn't want to stop until she's finished, even though she's been warned about incoming debris. This suggests that she does not have her priorities straight, she's not practical-minded. She's not, we might say, grounded.
Ryan is characterized in contrast to Matt, who is anything but engaged in his work. He is enjoying a space joyride, trying to set a record for the longest spacewalk. He is more interested in telling personal anecdotes, setting records and enjoying the view of Earth than he is in doing anything resembling scientific work. The only work he does in the film is help get Ryan focused on what she needs to do to survive. He is a spiritual guide more than anything else.
When the debris finally hits and her struggle begins, Ryan's character is fully revealed: She is incapable of acting. She almost can't even breathe. Matt guides her, makes decisions for her, stabilizes her a little, but her struggle is not merely to survive. She is struggling to learn how to deal with adversity. She is learning how to fight for her life. When Matt is pulled away from her, we don't mourn his death. It is not an emotionally devastating moment. Matt isn't even upset about it. All we feel is fear for Ryan, because now she's alone, with nobody to guide her. And remember, as Cuaron said, her obstacles are not physical, they are metaphysical. She is not just struggling for her life. She is finding a sense of joy in life, perhaps the fullest she has ever experienced. Ultimately, she finds strength in the joyful thought of Matt and her daughter waiting for her in Heaven.
I am sure that not everyone who likes this story believes in an afterlife. I imagine those who don't kind of wish they did, though. And I'm betting they all believe in the power of religious belief to ground people, to help them overcome adversity, giving them the strength to take control of their lives. That is the argument the film makes: If you have the right spiritual attitude, if you overcome the metaphysical barriers which keep you empty, lifeless and alone, then you can be a powerful, strong, self-actualized individual. It's an argument for individualism, but also for personal religion. Gravity is the force of your own spiritual strength which keeps you standing, ready to fight. Earth is whatever metaphysical truth makes that possible, what many people call "God."
This is not all explicitly stated in the film, but it's all pretty clear. As Cuaron says, " I think [the studios] have been jaded too much about the need [for audiences] to be reassured, and overexplained in things. Man, I give more credit for audiences."
Update: Oh, and about the religious icons. On the American ship, we see Marvin the Martian, an iconic cartoon character who is bent on destroying the Earth. That could be a symbol of spiritual bankruptcy. On the International Space Station, a Catholic icon. On the Chinese Space Station, a Buddha. Interesting trajectory: from spiritual bankruptcy to Catholicism to Buddhism to . . . Earth. Maybe there's no specific trajectory intended, but the use of the icons seems significant.