The major motion picture Sci-Fi thriller, Gravity (Cuarón, Heyman, & Cuarón, 2013) was released in 2013. It won seven Oscars in the following year, including best cinematography, directing, and film editing. According to IMBD.com the film grossed over 270 million dollars by 2014. Without a doubt, these achievements reflect how the film captured the imagination of people across the world. This paper is a unique look at the popular film Gravity because it focuses specifically on the character development of the heroine, Ryan Stone, played by actress Sandra Bullock. Stone’s adventure in space is similar to the types of challenges everyday women experience in their real-life journeys toward wholeness. In the following paragraphs I will give details on the nature of the challenges that women face growing up and how the film Gravity represents them in the moving image.
To begin with, it is important to take a moment for a closer look at the term, moving image. In the context of this paper, moving image does not only describe filmic qualities but it also describes psychological qualities. Depth psychology uses another term, which is archetypal, for images that are associated with recognizable psychological patterns (Jung, 2012). In the film Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013) our main character, Stone, experiences an archetypal psychological journey. The universal emotional qualities in the Sci-Fi thriller are one reason why so many people can relate to the character, even though not many people have actually been in space. Following a familiar story pattern or legend is one technique that directors use when developing their ideas for a film (Rabiger & Hurbis-Cherrier, 2013).
The language of film is multidimensional in the sense that it uses image in more than one way. In the first dimension an image is primarily psychological because human beings have memory and dream images. The second dimension is created with the language of words. The third and fourth dimension are the actual photographic image and other musical or ambient sounds. With a major motion picture, such as Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013), all these images are expertly combined together in order to create a multidimensional experience for the viewer. The technical creative skills like sound, cinematography, and editing are commonly described in special terms known as a filmic language. In this paper, I reference filmic language terms, also known as ‘Grammar’ of Television and Film, from Chandler (1994-2012) to explain how Gravity uses moving image to give new form to an ancient archetypal pattern.
Spoiler alert for anyone who has not yet seen the film Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013), please read no farther. The archetypal pattern that will be explored in depth is The Heroine’s Journey (Murdock, 2013), and it is about reconnecting after separation. The journey to wholeness for women is cyclical in its nature and has personal, cultural, and mythic themes. Gravity is a modern story that builds off older stories but fits the “spirit of the time” (Izod, 2001 p. 53). This paper uses the psychological pattern, provided by Murdock (2013), about the stages in The Heroine’s Journey and compares them to the film Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013). Murdock (2013) explained that the task of the journey is, “to heal the internal split that tells us to override the feelings, intuition, and dream images that inform us of the truth of life” (p. 11). Gravity’s heroine, Stone, expresses the qualities, such as courage, that are required. The heroine’s path is difficult and new films, like Gravity, represent a change in our culture that has a history of repressing the development of female power. As Frankel (2010) has pointed out, “to women, struggling to discover the Self, centuries of literature and symbolism that consider her man’s helpmate and support undermine her journey” (p. 175).
One of the key archetypal images, that of journey, in the film Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013) starts immediately and continues throughout the film. It is conveyed with the use of sound, camera angle, and movement. The first establishing shot of the film sets a pattern for conveying the concept of a great distance being traveled, and it is repeated in the film. The scene starts with an expansive and steady birds-eye view looking down at earth from space. It is a quiet environment and there is no sound at first, but then slowly the volume increases as simultaneously a spaceship approaches from the right side of the screen. As the spaceship gets closer, we see more details, and the sound gets louder so we hear more details as well. The combination of movement and sound coming into and out of range is repeated in the film to convey distance required to reach the next step in the journey. Figure 1 is a still from Gravity that illustrates distance of journey in filmic language.
Figure 1. Establishing shot (1:48) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
The first major plot point in the film I want to focus on matches Murdock’s (2013) model for the heroine’s journey and that is separation from the feminine. In Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013), mother earth and Stone represent the feminine primarily. The crew, including Stone, is in constant communication with mission control based on earth during their normal space flight activity. Due to an anomaly of space debris, the crew is warned that all communications are going down. When the communication with earth is severed, the heroine’s adventure begins and it ends when she is reunited with mother earth and hears the voice of mission control again. The filmic language used to represent the separation process is both visual and auditory. In contrast to the establishing shot of things coming into view, this scene includes images of the spaceship breaking apart. The experience of sudden change is expressed with a quick cut rate and disorienting rhythmic spinning of objects accentuated by the direct sound of panicked breathing. Figure 2 shows these elements of the film that are used repeatedly at each pivotal point in the plot to convey transition.
Figure 2. Still of separation (12:43) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
Murdock (2013) explained, “the second stage of the heroine’s journey a woman wishes to identify with the masculine or to be rescued by the masculine” (p. 36). In Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013) we see this stage expressed quite clearly as Stone is rescued by her commanding officer, Matt Kowalski, played by actor George Clooney see in Figure 3. The identification is visually represented, with the medium close-up two-shot and visually as Matt attaches a tether to Ryan and drags her behind him. Kowalski is a chatty character, almost like a voice-over narrator, and he asks Stone questions as a way of calming her down. In the process, we as the viewers, get to learn more about the characters.
Figure 3. Identification with the masculine (17:46) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
Together, Stone and Kowalski experience a series of challenges, including deprecating levels of oxygen, damaged equipment, and lack of fuel. These challenges are represented visually with violent collisions in space between the astronauts and the spaceships expressed with sudden changes in sound, camera movement, and editing. Rhythmic blinking warning lights, breathing, and buzzer warning sounds can be heard when viewers are placed inside the helmet and given the point-of-view of Stone. Kowalski knows the challenges ahead. As the experienced commander, he tells Stone what to do verbally. Ultimately, this arrangement cannot last if our heroine is to succeed. This stage of the heroine’s journey is referred to as the road of trials in Murdock’s (2013) model and it leads the illusory boon of success.
In Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013), the next stage in the cycle, an illusory boon of success, is reaching the safety of a functional spaceship. Stone is able to achieve this goal, but Kowalski gets lost in space during the process, making Stone the sole survivor. Up until this point in the film our heroine has been fearful and reluctant to speak or act on her own. When she reaches the spaceship she transforms. The transformation is visually represented by her short nap, in the fetal position, upon reaching safety. Like a baby born in space, seen incubating in Figure 4, she awakens as a changed woman.
Figure 4. Boone of Success (39:47) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
Stone’s first desire upon awakening is to communicate with Kowalski. Her newfound voice is part of the heroine’s cycle because “strengthening her skills of communication helps the heroine to get along with different types of people. And having the courage to present her vision inspires other women to trust their images and words” (Murdock, 2013 p. 15). Stone is unable to contact Kowalski, and she is unable to contact mission control on earth. She continues on her journey alone, and things do not get any easier for her after this point; they seem to get impossibly hard. It is in this stage of the archetypal pattern that a woman can come to realize that no matter what she does it is not enough. This is part of realizing the inner masculine figure, who demands perfect, can never be satisfied (Murdock, 2013).
The most transformative moment for Stone happens a few scenes later when she gives up on herself and resigns to die in space. This stage Murdock (2013) calls, awakening to death. In the filmic language, a slowing down, dimming, blurring, and cooling of temperature represents this movement toward death. For me, and I imagine many people, this is one of the most emotional scenes in the film. I found it transformative to watch it again with the lens of the heroine’s journey. Rather than interpreting surrender as failure, I saw the moment as a critical step in reclaiming the lost feminine. In filmic language, the experience of ambiguous time includes primal being and surrender, seen in Figure 5, that is expressed with sound in the combination of animal howling and a the narration over that radio with a baby crying.
Figure 5. Awakening to death (1:00:22) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
This death as transformation illustrates the tricky but important point about cyclical feminine development that is, “When a woman stops doing she must learn how to simply be. Being is not a luxury, it is a discipline. . . . Anything less than that aborts growth, denies change, and reverses transformation. Being takes courage and demands sacrifice” (Murdock, 2013 p. 83).
What happens next in the film is mysterious and magical. Kowalski appears outside the spaceship and enters the cabin. He is cheery, optimistic, and playful in delivering a pep talk to Stone about not giving up on life. This moment in the film creates a magical sense of time. At first, we are not sure if the scene is real or imagined. This distortion of time and reality is also an element of the film throughout, with fade ins and out, but in this scene it is most prominent. We are near the end of the journey. However, in the model of the heroine’s cycle there has not been enough time to work through all the stages of the cycle. The distortion of time is a filmic language tool used to include all the stages within the constraints of the movie timeline.
In the scene following Kowalski’s mysterious appearance and disappearance we are reminded that Stone has been depressed for a long time. The loss of her daughter gave her depression. This stage of darkness, just now reached in the film, is actually the emotional state where Stone has been the whole time. Murdock (2013) called this Initiation and Decent of the Goddess, and it typically starts when there is a big loss, like the loss of a child. In this scene, shown in Figure 6, Stone imagines talking to Kowalski even though she no longer sees him. In her dialog with him she quickly moves through the next few stages of the heroine’s journey, which include healing the mother-daughter split and healing the wounded masculine. I feel this is an important but understated moment because it illustrates the power of imaginal dialog (Watkins, 2000). Stone is empowered by hearing the voices of others from her memories because it allows her to be reunited with her love for her lost daughter and for Kowalski.
Figure 6. Imaginal Dialog (1:09:53) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
The final stage in the heroine’s journey and the final scene in the film are both about being reunited. There are several visual qualities that represent this idea but the strongest is the notion of landing and the return of gravity, which requires a balance to walk on two legs. As Stone approaches earth, the frequency and level of heat increase. In the final scene is a rich mixture of the basic elements such as earth, air, fire, and water. We also hear the return of the radio communication from mission control. Stone has completed her heroine’s journey and reconnected with mother earth and has balanced her masculine and feminine sides as is seen with her walking in Figure 7. She is ready to move on with her life from a new place of love for life and empowerment. The camera now tilts up from the ground to see her from a worm’s eye view.
Figure 7. Balance and new life (1:23:05) from Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013).
Stone, a whole woman, brings us wisdom about the interconnectedness life and teaches how to cohabitate in the vessel called earth and also helps others reclaim the feminine (Murdock, 2013). The cycle for the heroine is ongoing and the result is never complete wholeness or perfection. It is about finding and staying in balance and having the courage to simply be enough as we are. I personally feel a strong desire to give voice to this inner journey of the heroine, as I believe it is key in regenerating life on earth. We are at a time when life on the plant is threatened due to climate change. A film such as Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013) highlights the preciousness of the environment we have here on our unique home planet. I love this quote about what our task is from Murdock (2013):
Our task is to heal the internal split that tells us to override the feelings, intuition, and dream images that inform us of the truth of life. We must have the courage to live with paradox, the strength to hold the tension of not knowing the answers, and the willingness to listen to our inner wisdom and the wisdom of the planet, which begs for change. (p. 11)
In conclusion, film has a unique creative potential to animate archetypal energies in its form as moving image. We have seen how ancient psychological patterns can be applied to new narratives like the Sci-Fi fantasy movie Gravity (Cuarón et al., 2013). We have looked at how filmic language is used to express archetypal images using both image and sound. With this analysis it is clear how movies bring to life powerful stories, like the heroine’s journey, and reach a global audience. The role of moving image to influence beliefs on personal, cultural, and mythic level is arguably one of the most important at this time in history because film can impact how the hero’s and heroine’s of our culture respond to growing climate challenges.
Chandler, D. (1994-2012). The ‘grammar’ of television and film. Retrieved from http://mypage.siu.edu/markpease/readings/grammarTVfilm.pdf
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