Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s critically acclaimed Space thriller, is as subtle as it is spectacular, as adroit as it is action-packed. Not once does the film show its philosophical cards explicitly, but searching questions structure the movie’s existential universe, which get asked early on by the astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to his partner Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) as they drift in space: “So where’s home, Dr. Stone? Is there somebody down there looking up and thinking about you? Where do you pitch your tent?” These profound questions, as well as the personal confrontation with death, invisibly revolve within the gravity of a much larger modern conversation about Space and humanity’s place in the universe.
According to Hannah Arendt, the launching of Sputnik 1 into Space in 1957 was a revolutionary event. For Arendt, this technological triumph of man over the earth was a worrying symbol of modern man’s “world alienation” – an unprecedented situation in which human beings attempt to pull off something almost unimaginable in previous generations and become homeless in the process: literally to leave behind earthly life as it has been freely and mysteriously given to us, along with all of its natural limits and loves, for the sake of doing the seemingly impossible and existing in artificial containers that we have constructed for ourselves beyond gravity. As Arendt wrote in her essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man” (1963), “It has been the glory of modern science that it has been able to emancipate itself completely from all such anthropocentric, that is, truly humanistic, concerns.”
After all, as modern physics has known since Copernicus’s “revolution,” the universe does not revolve around the earth, and thus, physically speaking, man has no special place in the dark abyss of the universe. And it was Nietzsche who recognized the radical spiritual implications of this “revolution” like no one before him in 1882: “Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us?” Nietzsche’s haunting questions virtually sum up the eye-popping, heart-pounding action throughout Gravity. (For example: Stone: “GPS is down! I see nothing!” Kowalski: “Do you have a visual?!The sun, earth, anything?!” Stone: “No! I’m off structure, and I’m drifting! Do you copy?! Anyone?!”)The question is real: What could possibly give weight and orientation to “anthropocentric” or “humanistic” concerns in such a topsy-turvy, impersonal universe racing toward death?
But this is what is so interesting about Gravity. After a slew of films that emphasize the desolation of Earth and the desire to go beyond it for something higher – After Earth, Oblivion, Elysium – Gravity rather defiantly misses home and does everything it can to return to Earth. Indeed, quite paradoxically and brilliantly, the film shows us almost zero earth-bound footage or human interaction (except between two astronauts and an anonymous “Houston”), because it wants our cinematic return to Earth to be as shockingly new and good as being born – something that can’t be made (like a spaceship) but only given and received.
Still, what is the source of the film’s new-found confidence in “home” after the loved one has died, after our attempt to transcend our earthly condition has been blown to pieces, after we’ve stared in the face of our own death and find ourselves clawing our way back onto the shore of a world we left behind?
Andrew DeCort. is a PhD student in Ethics at University of Chicago. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org