Last week I saw Alfonso Cuaron’s remarkable new film Gravity. Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, an astronaut on her first mission who carries with her an agonising emotional burden: her four-year-old daughter died in a playground accident, and she has nothing left to live for. As anyone who has seen the film trailer knows (and as anyone who has ever been to a movie before could guess), the mission soon breaks down and both Stone and fellow astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are struggling to survive. This is the first science fiction film I have seen since 2001: A Space Odyssey that depicts outer space not as a vast frontier of high adventure but as a place of agonising agoraphobia, comparable only to the ocean in its power to overwhelm and terrify human beings with its cold, monstrous indifference.
It is not my intention to give a review of the film, only to draw attention to a particularly powerful and moving scene. Without giving away any significant plot points, Bullock’s character at one point in the film finds herself in a tiny space capsule no larger than a compact car, shivering in subzero temperatures, surrounded by the horrific cold impersonality of endless space. Her chances of getting back to Earth are slim, and she realizes, perhaps for the first time, that she doesn’t really want to get back anyway. Why should she? She has nothing to live for. She turns off the lights and leans back in the capsule, waiting for her oxygen to run out.
Would it spoil the film for you if I told you that she changes her mind? That she decides that she wants to live, that even though she aches for her lost daughter, and her life at the present time seems empty, that life itself is worth living for? Although the term “life affirming” has become something of an artistic and cinematic cliché, I can’t help but call the film life affirming in every sense of the term. It is an allegory of humankind’s struggle to not only survive, but to choose to survive in the face of depression, alienation, and despair. Cuaron has done something magical. As with his previous film, the 2006 dystopian adventure Children of Men, he has wedded high adventure with existential meditation. In both films tragic protagonists, tormented by loss, skirt dangerously close to a death wish. In both films they find that life is too precious to abandon, even if their own circumstances have not changed.
The question of whether life is worth living was perhaps most famously stated by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, another famously tormented protagonist, who said, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Cuaron has given us a great gift; in Gravity, just as in Children of Men, he has considered this question, and answered it.