by Sam Kriss
The new film Gravity does something quite brave: it doesn’t make space beautiful. We all have an idea of what outer space should look like: all those vast pink and blue nebulae draped in purple stars, swirling at the slow pace of cosmic infinity into (of course) phallic or pudendal forms. Space has gas clouds and supernovae and green-skinned alien babes and, quite possibly, God. At the same time we know that the sublime images we get from NASA are all in false colours; that for all the fascinating things in it (and there are plenty of them), most of space itself is actually quite boring as far as our libidinal imaginations are concerned. It’s a dead black void scattered with a few dead grey rocks, and they crash into each other according to a precise mathematical senselessness. But in our fiction, at least, we can have it all: black holes, asteroid fields, c-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. Not for Alfonso Cuarón; he’s got a real pedant’s eye for this stuff. The Earth is beautiful in Gravity, its clouds burning orange as the line of sunset crosses its surface, its cities shining in the night like diamonds on a lace – but space beyond its orbit is just a cold dark nothing. There’s only one shot that throws a sop to our aestheticised vision of the universe: our hero drifts out briefly into the void, and we see her framed against a galaxy of stars – but even here it looks washed out and anaemic; a semi-skimmed Milky Way. No grandeur, just emptiness. It’s incredibly impressive.
Cuarón does something else that’s pretty extraordinary: in a film where every shot and effect is fine-tuned to perfection, he’s managed to craft a plot that’s entirely unremarkable, dialogue so corny as to border on the emetic, and characters who might be floating in infinitely extended space but are entirely lacking in any depth themselves. It’s strange. In Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men Cuarón showed that he’s every bit as capable a writer as he is a director, but the plot in Gravity hugs so closely to genre that you can pretty much work it all out from the trailer (if you can’t, look away now). There’s a disaster in space; Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are cast adrift; he dies heroically saving her life; she has a crisis of confidence but then looks inside herself to find the strength that she needs to survive, and ends up setting foot once more on the friendly soil of Earth. Along the way there’s some seriously embarrassing dialogue (“Will you pray for me? Nobody ever taught me how”) and a seemingly unnecessary backstory about the death of Bullock’s young daughter in lieu of any actual characterisation. It’s interesting that Clooney’s space fratboy – for all the wacky stories he half-relates – never has his emotional past strip-mined in the same manner; clearly the psychological depths of hysteria are still only to be plunged by women. In this really excellent post at Wasted Ideology the dodgy gender politics of the film are thoroughly taken apart, and the result isn’t pretty: in the end, even a disaster film in space needs to continually reaffirm ‘the centrality of love and family to everyone’s experience, weak women and strong men.’
This doesn’t mean that there’s not room for some significance in the film: after all, it has all that terrifying empty space gnawing at its periphery. The psychotherapist Aaron Balick gives an interesting reading, in which the repeated motif of ‘letting go’ (including in the film’s tagline) and the subject of Bullock’s lost daughter is read against Freud’s Mourning and Melancholia, turning the film into a psychological parable:
For Freud, the refusal to let go results in the person holding onto the lost other inside one’s self. So long as the lost person remains psychologically inside the self, they can never be properly mourned (or let go of) and nothing can ever take its place. Furthermore, it is a constant drain on the life energy as it is pulled inwards towards the lost object, and not available to go outwards into to the world; it operates like an internal black hole. When Dr. Stone [Sandra Bullock] decides to give up hope, this is a giving up of her relationship to the world. In a sense, it is an (unconscious) choice to abandon the real world and to be sucked into the endless chasm of depression induced self-involvement: to literally let go of the world and collapse in upon the self and die. She shuts off the oxygen in her pod awaiting her death, when the spectre of Matt [George Clooney] comes to snap her out of it (a representation from her unconscious). It is he (whom she has refused to let go before) that guides to towards the what she has lost, not just the whom, to use Freud’s words. He brings the unconscious part of her loss to consciousness. He essentially says, “your daughter is dead, you are not, you can choose life.”
Letting go, yes – but something of a Leninist approach is needed here: letting go into what? There’s something crucial in Mourning and Melancholia that’s missing in this approach; Freud’s text isn’t a self-help guide. Freud describes melancholia as a turning of the ego against itself – ‘the patient represents his ego to us as worthless, incapable of any achievement and morally despicable; he reproaches himself, vilifies himself and expects to be cast out and punished.’ What’s interesting is that Freud doesn’t necessarily disagree: the melancholic patient isn’t delusional, he probably is worthless, his sickness is that he’s lacking the narcissistic delusions that let most people ignore this fact and go about their days as normal. Freud connects this falling-away of delusions with the loss of a desired object (this loss isn’t necessarily death, but a rejection or disappointment) that the ego continues to strongly attach itself to. It’s not just a simple matter of ‘letting go’ of a loved one – the point is that the ego directs its hatred against itself because it unconsciously hates that same object of desire, but still identifies with it too strongly to express that hate. When you love someone, that other person becomes something of a master-signifier; the point around which your entire life and subjectivity gains meaning. It’s an impossible task; in the end we’re all just bags of flesh and offal, and loving someone is a terrible thing to impose on them. When that person inevitably fails to be perfect, it’s felt as a loss and a betrayal. Hatred results; if you love someone, you can’t help but hate them at the same time. Sometimes you can manage that hatred, but if you’re really in love, full of fire and passion, all your hatred is turned inwards on yourself, and the only way to recover from this is to admit to yourself how you actually feel. Letting go isn’t Sandra Bullock finally managing to move past the death of her daughter and value her own life. It’s a furious exclamation: fuck her, fuck her for dying; how could she do that to me? Letting go means floating off alone into the seething blackness of space.
You let go into empty space, but space always carries meaning. Since Kant we’ve known that spatiality isn’t an objective prior substance in which things exist but something that we create when we conceive of relations between objects. In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari posit two modalities of space: the smooth and the striated. Smooth space is intensive nomad space, in which ‘the point is between two lines;’ striated space is the extensive space of the State, in which ‘the line is between two points.’ Felt is smooth; woven cloth is striated. Earth orbit in Gravity is a heavily striated space; movements are always made between fixed positions. We go to the shuttle, and from there to the ISS, and from there to the Chinese station; as Bullock tumbles into the void Clooney tries to fix her line of flight through reference to points. What can you see? Can you see the shuttle? Can you see the moon? However, as Deleuze and Guattari point out, the two forms of space are always in a dialectic: farmers put up walls and pastoralists tear them down. At the beginning of the film there’s a catastrophe: an anti-satellite missile test goes horrible wrong and suddenly a deadly tide of debris is circling the planet at lethal speed. Now every fixed point must be considered in terms of its relation to that moving line. Striated space comes with all the blockages of bourgeois subjectivity – the nation-state, the family unit, the Oedipal triangle – and, of course, Bullock only survives in the film by upholding these striations. She doesn’t let go, she doesn’t admit that she hates her dead daughter, she keeps on going to preserve her melancholic attachment, to carry on affirming that desire is a lack. But there’s another way.
The Earth is beautiful in Gravity. Space isn’t beautiful, but it is smooth, a void in which nothing is stable, crisscrossed by tumbling objects and lines of flight. However tightly focused the action is onscreen, it’s always lurking there in the background, a silent rebuke to all the striations arcing up from the planet’s surface. As he floats away to die, Clooney’s character has a choice: he can disappear among the stars, or he can use the last few breaths of fuel in his jetpack to nudge himself in the direction of Earth. After a while, floating will become falling. Gravity will get him. He’ll burn to a crisp, but he’ll do so under the blue skies of home. What would you do? Clooney chooses the stars, and he can do this because he hasn’t been subjected to the same bullshit characterisation as Bullock. The narrative demands that she risk her life re-entering the atmosphere because she’s been thoroughly interpellated as a woman, a grieving mother, and a melancholic. Clooney still has a touch of the everyman about him, and out there in empty space you can approach what Badiou calls the ‘generic.’ You become your own movement. Gender and nation and subjectification mean nothing for a human body spinning powerlessly in the void. In a way, God is out there; the promise of the New Testament is fulfilled: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. The film can’t endorse it, of course – that’s why it’s only ever presented as a danger – but it’s still haunted by this idea: the communism of outer space.