Forces of Gravity

Kevin Fisher, University of Otago |


Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2013

Intertitles over a black screen preface the first representational images of Gravity (2013) with a series of physical facts about space: the extremes of temperature, the lack of any pressure or atmosphere; culminating with the assertion that “the human body cannot live in space”. The first scene, which introduces the two main characters mid-spacewalk demonstrates accordingly that life in space is lived essentially within a hermetically sealed technosphere, within which all the essential elements of the biosphere have been abstracted and canned as Heideggerian “standing reserve” (15), dramatically measured in waning increments of oxygen, temperature and pressure.

Yet beyond its fidelity to the physical impossibilities of space so critical to its realism and generative of the narrative crises that drive its characters from one foundering container to another, Gravity is equally invested in the expressive power of what Vivian Sobchack describes as the “film’s body” (164-8) to explore the embodied experience of space and at times transcend the physical limitations imposed on its characters. For example, the first spacewalk sequence involves a combined expression of the physiological and existential dimensions of nausea, as astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) fights off motion sickness while attempting to repair the communications unit in zero gravity outside the space shuttle. At one point during the sequence the earth rises up behind the rotating shuttle, largely blocking out the background of black space. An extraordinary thing occurs: the surface of the planet seems to reverse from a convex sphere into a concave bowl engulfing the entire frame and inducing intense feelings of disorientation. Notably, the phenomenon is not physical but perceptual. Like Sartre’s Roquentin overwhelmed before the deforming chestnut tree in Nausea: “still detached from it … but lost in it, nothing but it” (177), the earth, estranged from its normal context as proximate ground of human activity, threatens to engulf all being in a vertiginous implosion that also invokes the double meaning of gravity itself as physical and affective force.

Both senses of nausea are forcefully realized through the film’s novel conjunction of gravitational suspension and stereoscopy. As Stone hastens to finish her repairs before crew and shuttle are consumed in a maelstrom of space junk, her hand appears to reach through the fourth wall to retrieve errant bolts floating in front of the screen, while the furthest extremities of the shuttle, and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) circling from back to foreground in his jetpack, stretch the fabric of space in opposite directions against the rotating backdrop of earth, moon, stars and space. The hyperbolic protraction of negative parallax (objects appearing to extend beyond the foreground of the screen) and positive parallax (the production of supplementary depth within the background) draws attention to the play of figure and ground as fundamentally constitutive of the visual field within the phenomenology of perception (Sobchack 69-71).

The involution of the earth prefigures other types of reversals unique to the existential structure of film experience. Specifically, it stands as objective correlative for that exchange by which, according to Sobchack, the cinematic apparatus turns the visual consciousness of another inside out and makes it visibly inhabitable onscreen for the spectator. When the shuttle is destroyed by hurtling debris, Stone is sent spinning into space and temporarily cut off from all communication with Kowalski, the only other survivor. The film intercuts two series of shots: in one group Stone’s body tumbles head over heals within the frame, and in the other, reversibly, the horizon flips around her static yet flailing body. The force of the alternation is amplified through stereoscopy while demonstrating the relativity of movement in space. The film finally cuts to an extreme close-up of Stone’s face through her space helmet. Because her head consumes the entire frame, the shot imposes a sense of stasis in relation to which the spinning stars take on a diminished effect, appearing only in reflection on the surface of the glass. The expression is thus less one of objective stasis than subjective shock. The shot also involves a decisively non-objective movement by which the camera rotates horizontally from the view of Stone’s face outside her space helmet to a viewing position inside the helmet looking out into space with her face now reflected indirectly upon the glass against the directly visible rotation of the stars.


Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. 2013

Significantly, the axis or chiasm of this rotation – segregating the objective and subjective modalities of embodiment – is inscribed by the dome of her space helmet, which as in the previous example of the earth transforms from convex to concave. The glass becomes a multivalent symbol, doubling reflexively for the screen around which the cinematic apparatus turns embodied vision inside out, and as fourth wall routinely transgressed by stereoscopy.

This transmigration of the film’s body across this mediating barrier also foregrounds the general theme of human-technological relations within the diegetic world of the film. According to Don Ihde, the human use of technologies is fundamentally predicated upon “embodiment relations” (72-80): the ability to extend perception through technological mediation. For example, the space suit enables the body to transparently view the earth from an otherwise impossible vantage, as well as perform manual tasks, such as using other tools to repair the ship, in an otherwise prohibitive environment. However, the film’s dramatic structure is equally dependent on what Ihde describes as hermeneutic and alterity relations. “Hermeneutic relations” (80-97) account for the fact that technology always transforms the perception that it enables, and thus, to some degree, must always be interpreted. For example, the embodiment of weightlessness within both the space walks and space stations requires a number of hermeneutic adjustments, such as retaining a grasp on objects so that other tools and one’s own body do not drift off into space – a recurring danger within the film.

Ihde details how complex layerings of mediation can greatly amplify hermeneutic challenges. In Gravity this becomes quite explicit through the escalating difficulties encountered by Stone as she tries to operate the controls for the Soviet and then Chinese space stations. In the first case, her panicked survey of an instruction manual is required to translate the Russian keyboard and commands into English and figure out what buttons to push on the console. However, the problem is exacerbated in the Chinese space station, where the keyboard and various controls confront Stone with the more fundamental problem of illegible ideograms. This dilemma points to Ihde’s third category of “alterity relations” (97-108), in which “enigma positions” (86-7) somewhere within the chain of mediation serve to fatally obstruct the very intentional agency that the technology was designed to extend. Such blockages can be cultural, as in the case of the Chinese characters, or involve some failure within the chain of technological mediation, such as when the escape pod from the Russian space station initially provides a false reading of the fuel levels, or the failure of the communication unit in the opening scene of the film. The latter example underscores the recursive dangers inherent in the complete reliance upon technology, as the repair of the communication unit depends upon transmissions that the malfunctioning technology is itself interrupting.

The foregoing sequence is also one of many that beg comparison with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), in this case the false prediction of failure in the AE 35 unit on Discovery whereby HAL leads Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) out into a space walk and to his death. However, the problem in Gravity isn’t a neurotic computer, but the category error by which humans tend to consider technologies as mere objects in pars ex partes relations, rather than as lived systems of relations. In this sense, the naïve attempt of the USSR to single out one individual satellite for destruction within what has become an orbiting ensemble of quasi-autonomous technologies yields as many cascading unpredictable outcomes as tampering with isolated elements of an ecosystem. The emphasis on alterity relations in SF films often coincides with dystopian representations of human overreliance on technology. In one of the film’s most poetic moments, Stone has resigned herself to die in the de-fuelled Russian Soyuz capsule. She sheds a tear, which floats towards the fourth wall and beyond into negative parallax, reflecting her image, and reflexively figuring her entire lifeworld microcosmically suspended in precarious balance.

However as this pivotal scene reveals, the film is more openly fascinated than didactically pessimistic or deterministic in its representations of human-technological relations. For as Ihde corroborates, the ambiguities – inherent in all technologies – that underlie alterity relations can also open onto possibilities for alternative applications unintended by their design. In the sequence that immediately follows Stone’s attempted suicide, Kowalski – thought to be lost in space – suddenly appears outside the window of the capsule and opens the airlock to let himself in before she can put on her helmet. That this visitation is either supernatural or hallucinated is signaled by the fact that Stone is left miraculously unharmed by a degree of exposure that previously reduced the other shuttle crew to ice blocks. By faithfully observing the rules imposed by technological realism, the film is able to selectively and meaningfully violate them. In this case the intervention, whether transcendental or unconscious in origin, is not merely delusory, as Kowalski (or his ghost) instructs Stone how to “trick” the capsule into deploying its landing rockets, which actually saves her life. As Heidegger points out, “the essence of technology is by no means technological” (4), but is contingent upon the context and intentions of its use. In this respect, survival in Gravity depends on the injection of a non-technological element, which however, leads Stone to triumph not over technology but through it, by virtue of its creative and improvisational deployment. Other examples of this include her use of a fire extinguisher to jet-propel herself from the Soyuz capsule to the Chinese space station, and her memory of the ergonometric position of keys and controls to activate the correct functions once inside.

Stone’s ultimate triumph: her safe return to earth, is co-extensive with the film’s greatest phenomenological feat: its commutation of the existential conditions of its characters to its audience. Nowhere is this expressed so powerfully as with the felt force of gravitation itself. Even when the film’s body seems to become most disoriented from the earth, as in the scene where Stone is tumbling in space, it is only in relation to the felt presence of the planet as center of gravity that the sense of being turned upside down retains any phenomenal purchase. Similarly, it is the latent sense of being grounded to the earth in the theater that similarly informs the audience’s perception of disorientation and weightlessness on screen. Indeed it is the attenuation of gravitation throughout most of the film that secretly prepares the audience for the phenomenological profundity of the final sequence. When Stone crawls from the ocean onto land, the lived-experience of gravity became palpable with an intensity that seemed to pin me in my seat, and a novelty which life on earth had deprived me. In this sense, the film accomplishes with the phenomenon of gravity something akin to what La Jetée generated by restricting all movement to the momentary blinking of an eye.


Heidegger, Martin (1977) ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, in The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt, New York: Harper & Row, pp. 3-35.

Ihde, Don (1990) Technology and the Lifeworld: from garden to earth, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Sartre, Jean Paul (1964) Nausea, New York: New Directions Publishing.

Sobchack, Vivian (1992) The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Bio: Kevin Fisher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Media, Film & Communication at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His research interests include phenomenology, special effects and audio-visual analysis, and documentary.