Birth, Death and Mankind’s Drive to Survive in Gravity

In a moment of respite, Ryan Stone floats in the foetal position in Gravity.

Being born is terrifying. Noisy, disorientating and arduous, it’s quite possibly one of the most traumatic experiences in our lives.

It’s a good thing we don’t remember it, because our birth is also the most important process we’ll ever go through — and absolutely essential for everything that follows.

In Gravity, 2013’s Oscar-winning sci-fi drama by Alfonso Cuarón, birth is a recurring motif. The film might be set hundreds of miles above earth, but it uses one of the most miraculous yet grounded achievements of the human race (and one we accomplish up to 360,000 times each and every day) as a way to deal with themes of adversity, purpose and the drive to survive.

Spoiler warning: in this post I’ll be discussing all major plot points in the movie, so don’t read on unless you’ve watched it all the way through first.

Safe in the womb

Ever since that hallmark of the science fiction genre 2001: A Space Odyssey, parallels have been drawn in cinema between space exploration and birth. In Gravity that comes to a head with some of the most powerful visual metaphors put to film so far.

The opening minutes of Gravity introduce us to a team of astronauts repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. They’re attached to their spacecraft with thick ties that look very much like umbilical cords floating in the vacuum of space. Later, when space debris begins to hit the team and all hell breaks loose, this cord is all that attaches biomedical engineer Ryan Stone to her colleague Matt Kowalski. With it she is safe, and beyond it lies certain death in the cold depths of space.

As a green astronaut on her first space walk, Stone feels unprepared for everything that occurs over the course of the film. In the first half of the movie she forgets her training; she is quickly overwhelmed and has to rely on Kowalski to guide her. As she’s buffeted here and there she’s often gasping wildly, unable to express or even structure her thoughts.

The sheer helplessness she feels and the way she reacts to these bewildering events is reminiscent of a newborn struggling for breath, not knowing how to react to the strange environment in which she finds herself.

One of the loveliest moments in the film comes when Stone finally makes it back to the International Space Station, shaken, having had to abandon Kowalski, but somehow alive. She collapses into the airlock, pulls off her helmet and gasps for air. Then, after shedding her space suit, she surrenders to weightlessness and just hangs there, barely clothed, suspended in the foetal position. After everything she’s been through, this primal instinct is a moment of hard-earned tranquility in the womb of the station.

Rebirth

After enduring hours of hardship, Stone eventually returns to earth in a Chinese capsule as the sole survivor of her spacecraft. She lands in a lake, and her capsule is on fire, so she’s forced to exit immediately. Opening the hatch brings a torrent of water, and she struggles to escape from the oppressively small space. After removing her space suit for a second time underwater, she becomes light enough to swim to the surface and slither, finally, onto solid ground.

She lays prone, feeling the mud between her fingertips and uttering a universal thanks, a prayer she was unable to summon earlier — there is a sense that this is very much Mother Earth, a sustaining, nourishing, life-giving force that she has returned to.

What Stone experiences is her own rebirth. She escapes the mysterious, weightless other world to swim through a sea of quasi-amniotic fluid and arrive violently, panting and shaking, into the real world. After reaching ground she crawls onto her knees and then takes her first few upright, shaky steps.

But this isn’t just the birth of one person. It’s the metaphorical birth of the human race. Stone has overcome all odds to survive: she’s a symbol of the human spirit of resilience, from when we first walked onto land to the moment we set our sights on the stars. For Gravity this scene is as central to its meaning as the spinning-bone-to-spaceship cut is in 2001. Stone’s struggle to endure when everything seems hopeless, when life seems meaningless, is the same struggle we humans have faced and will continue to face until the end of time.

It turns out Neil Armstrong said it best: “It’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

The drive to survive

So here’s what’s at the core of Gravity: the eternal struggle between life and death, light and dark, sleep and consciousness. The pivoting human urges to give up or to keep fighting. The quiet acceptance of death and the raging against the dying of the light, and when it is right to feel either.

In the most important scene in the film, Stone discovers that her shuttle is out of fuel and won’t be able to deliver her to the Chinese station where she can acquire a capsule capable of returning her to safety. All communication with mission control is lost; Stone can only tune into to the sound of an Eskimo back on earth singing lullabies to a crying baby.

There is nothing left to do. She thinks about her four-year-old daughter, who died in a tragic accident, and feels ready to meet her death. She turns off her oxygen supply and prepares to be lulled into a gentle, eternal sleep. But just as death is calling to her, Kowalski finds the shuttle, opens the hatch and lets himself in. He turns the oxygen back on and scolds Stone for having been ready to give in so easily:

I get it, it’s nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights, just close your eyes and tune out everyone. There’s nobody up here that can hurt you. It’s safe. I mean, what’s the point in going on? What’s the point of living?”

He voices the crux of the movie. What is the point of living? Life takes on the meaning you give it, and yes, it’s always going to feel easier, simpler, safer to just give up. But life is a gift too precious to be thrown away: it needs to be grabbed with both hands and invested in with all your heart.

It turns out that Kowalski never entered the shuttle at all. His reappearance was a hallucination of Stone’s oxygen-deprived mind, a physical manifestation of her drive to survive. Just when she thought she was prepared for death, a more basic part of her psyche woke up and told her that no, there was still something worth living for. Despite all the hardship and heartache it had brought her, life itself was the prize.

Kowalski sacrifices himself so that Stone might survive. From the moment the accident happens he acts as a stabilising and driving force for Stone, showing her what she needs to do to live just one second longer. He does not allow himself to panic or to imagine they won’t make it; he moves doggedly onwards, onto the next most viable escape plan and the next.

When they collide with the International Space Station, however, the situation is suddenly reversed and Kowalski finds he is weighing Stone down. Unless he detaches himself from her, they will both be flung away from the station and their last chance of returning to earth. Kowalski’s motivation does a 180 turn: his odds of survival extinguished, he gives up on his own life so that he can improve the odds of Stone’s continuing. The man that has worked tirelessly to return them to safety accepts his fate, and Stone is forced, somewhat reluctantly, to take on his mantle and drive herself onwards moment by moment towards the rest of her life.

Choosing life

I don’t know what babies think in the seconds before they’re born. But if I had to take a guess, it would be this: Stop. Please. I was warm and safe. Just let me sleep. I don’t want to wake up.

In the waking there comes pain and suffering, but also joy and discovery. Life is both, and we have to be prepared to live it to experience either.

Humans are forces of nature, bundles of potential energy. We all must choose between keeping still and letting momentum take us where it will, or actively directing the trajectory of our lives. We can sign off or we can strap in. At times we want nothing more than to give in and close our eyes, go to sleep, let the inevitable wash over us.

But there’s something deep in every one of us — some spark of survival — that picks us up and tells us to keep on going. It’s what Stone experiences in the shuttle, and it’s what enables mankind to endure even the harshest of obstacles for a chance to experience the endless miracle of life.

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