Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón, 2013) is a survival thriller in space that details the fictional events of a doomed mission to the Hubble Telescope. Newbie Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and her mission commander, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), are the sole survivors when the mission is violently interrupted by a barrage of satellite debris that destroys their ride home and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski sacrifices himself, drifting out into space in order to give Stone a chance to make it home. He is presumed dead. At her lowest point in the film, Stone gives up and turns down her oxygen in an effort to kill herself painlessly, since there is nothing left for her on Earth.
A miracle appears in the form of Matt Kowalski, who somehow made it to Stone’s escape capsule and reminds her that she can use the landing thrusters to send her ship into motion. However, camera movement reveals that Kowalski was never actually in the capsule with Stone. Although Gravity is a film about survival against the odds, there are numerous thematic elements that imply a supernatural aspect to Stone’s journey. The scene positions Matt Kowalski’s appearance as a spirit come to guide Ryan Stone home when she has given up. His visit enables Stone to complete her spiritual and emotional journey across the film.
The scene that comprises the third turning point of Gravity begins with the camera on Stone as she discovers that the Soyuz pod is out of fuel. Right before Stone violently swears at the empty tank, the viewpoint abruptly cuts to outside the capsule, where Stone can be seen pounding the control panel in frustration. Although the viewer is no longer inside the craft with Stone, there is still diegetic sound coming from her. Her transmission to Houston in-the-blind is heard as if over radio communication. This is the first indication that something unusual happening.
In the above clip, notice that when the camera cuts to outside of the craft initially, no diegetic sound is heard, only music. As such, it breaks convention to hear Stone’s transmission from outside the craft in the final shot. This manipulation of sound subtly suggests that someone is listening to Stone over the radio, though no one responds. She desperately begs for Houston to copy as the sun sets over the Earth, plunging her into a symbolic darkness.
There is no response from Houston.
Eventually, Stone makes contact with someone on Earth over the radio, only to realize she is talking with an Inuit man, Aningaaq, who speaks very little English and cannot help her. Stone sits back and, after jumbled communication with Aningaaq, realizes she is going to die. At this point, she begins a monologue, somewhat directed at Aningaaq but mostly to herself, about dying and wishing there was someone on Earth to mourn her and pray for her soul, yet another reference to something beyond this realm of existence.
As Stone begins to give up hope, the camera tracks around until Stone is centered, emphasizing her monologue and facial expressions over Aningaaq’s speech. From the radio comes the sound of a crying child, the final nail in Stone’s abysmal coffin of hopelessness. The child reminds Stone of her own daughter, now deceased and the reason why Stone began to spiral downwards before coming to space. Although Stone claims to not know how to pray, implying she is not religious, she says, “I hope I will see [my daughter] soon,” – Stone believes, or would like to believe, in some form of the afterlife; another subtle supernatural element. The camera tracks back to show Stone shutting off the lights and oxygen. Stone leans back to succumb to death. The camera centers on Stone as Aningaaq’s voice dissolves into static, leaving Stone alone once more.
Right at that moment, Matt Kowalski shows up outside the Soyuz. He enters the capsule and turns the lights and oxygen back on, an act symbolic of life and hope. Kowalski explains to Stone a way to use the landing thrusters to launch the Soyuz towards the Chinese satellite, despite Stone’s numerous arguments against him, arguments that show how she has given up hope and faith in herself.
Kowalski concedes that he understands why Stone would want to give up and die in the Soyuz instead of fight to return home. “There’s nobody up here that could hurt you,” he says after he turns the lights down to simulate Stone’s dying atmosphere. “It’s safe.” While Kowalski speaks, the camera drifts so the two characters are centered on the screen, but then slowly moves to center on Stone as Kowalski calmly confronts her about her fears and depression after losing her daughter. The camera moves closer to Stone’s face to the point where it cuts Kowalski out of the screen. At this point, the music begins to take on the sound of the blaring alert noises from before Kowalski arrived, and his voice comes from off-screen, saying, “Ryan, it’s time to go home.” As the alert siren gets louder, the camera moves back to reveal that Kowalski is not in the seat next to Stone.
Since Gravity is a science fiction film and not a fantasy film, the initial inclination is that Kowalski was a hallucination of Stone’s subconscious reminding her of the landing thrusters, a vision taking the form of Matt Kowalski. It is more fitting of a movie based in fact and reality that Kowalski a mental construct instead of an otherworldly visitor. However, there are several indications that suggest Kowalski was less a hallucination and more a guiding spirit.
First, there is the shot mentioned above where Stone’s diegetic sound can be heard outside the Soyuz. The door that Stone is seen through is also the same door that Kowalski enters from, suggesting that it was Kowalski’s spirit that was watching Stone, or at least hearing her over the radio.
Second, Kowalski is wearing white, which stands out from the grey and tan interior of the Soyuz:
White is a color symbolically associated with the afterlife, specifically in reference to ghosts and angels. Kowalski’s all-white outfit is another indication that he is a spirit and not a physical being.
There are also the thematic elements that suggest something supernatural happened to Ryan Stone. She awkwardly begs for someone to pray for her soul right before Kowalski’s appearance. Additionally, there is the religious iconography of Jesus right as Stone makes contact with Aningaaq, the first communication she has with anyone since losing Kowalski.
Pairing this religious image with a beacon of hope suggests that there is a relationship between the two events in the form of a divine inspiration. Although Aningaaq’s case ultimately was not helpful, this adds further evidence to the idea that there is a spiritual aspect to Gravity, which strengthens the argument that Matt Kowalski’s ghost visited Stone to give her hope in her dying moments.
Finally, there is what happens once Stone wakes up enough to restore the oxygen and follow Kowalski’s advice: Stone begins an apostrophic address to Kowalski, despite the fact that he is not there or in radio contact with her.
Apostrophe is a figure of speech where the speaker calls out to a being absent and unable to answer; it is usually used in poetry as an address to a muse or God. Ryan Stone’s apostrophe is to Matt Kowalski, someone she knows is dead. Regardless of if Stone was really visited by Kowalski’s ghost or just hallucinated him, the fact stands that Stone treats her source of inspiration as a spirit in the form of Kowalski. She asks him to take a message to her daughter when he sees her soon, a direct indication that Stone believes, at least to some extent, that Kowalski contacted her somehow from beyond the grave.
This address is also telling of Stone’s character development. She obviously has a renewed strength to return to Earth, since she is actively trying to survive. Stone also reveals more about her daughter than she did the first time her child came up; instead of talking about her daughter’s death, Stone talks about her life: the girl’s tangled hair, her missing red shoe, how much she is loved by her mother. It indicates that while Stone may not have fully recovered from her daughter’s death, she is on a path to recovery and is moving beyond the depressed stupor she shut herself into before receiving the vision of Kowalski.
In the end, Gravity is as much a film about a spiritual rebirth as it is about survival against the odds. Ryan Stone, when it seems that all hope is lost, is faced with a choice: to die or continue fighting to live. Inspired by the ghostly apparition of her deceased commander Matt Kowalski, Stone makes the choice to move past the depression that befell her after the death of her daughter and with a renewed hope, makes it back to Earth alive.
I had assistance in making these gifs from my friend Kelly Lin.