Gravity as a Horror Movie: Nature as the Villain

Jack Haggerty

Alfonso Caurón‘s Gravity shares many common elements with the typical horror film, including gripping suspense, the element of surprise and a truly terrifying narrative that sucks the viewer into the protagonist’s plight. However, unlike most horror films, Gravity does not invoke the supernatural or a villainous character to instill terror in its audience. Rather, Gravity relies purely on the natural forces of our universe and the limitation on human capabilities to navigate these forces. The undeniable actuality of these two elements lead to the truly terrifying villain that is the reality of life in space, one that does not ask the audience to suspend its disbelief. Additionally, Gravity holds itself to an incredibly high standard in depicting events in space realistically, including the sound’s inability to propagate in space as well as the accurate portrayal of object movement in space.

The Use of Horror Elements in Gravity

Throughout Gravity, the film explicitly makes use of elements and tropes commonly found in horror movie to heighten the sense of terror in the audience. More specifically, the use of the soundtrack to build suspense and the classic shock take are used consistently throughout the film.

The first instance in the film that the soundtrack plays a role in building suspense are the moments that precede the first impact of shrapnel and the moments that follow. In the clip below, the soundtrack begins appropriately with the onset of the drama as Houston announces “Mission Abort”. The soundtrack begins with prolonged low humming noises that effectively signal a sense of noticed alarm, both in the characters and in the audience. As the terrifying prospects of the situation become more realized throughout the scene, the hums heighten in volume and intensity, reflecting the heightening suspense of the scene. Additionally, between these low hums, an unusual sound that mimics the doppler effect expected to be heard of objects flying by can be heard in bunches. Despite the fact that no shrapnel has been seen on camera yet, this is no doubt an allusion to the coming shrapnel. The constant use of this sound in the scene has the effect of constantly reminding the audience of the impending threat, effectively building suspense with every occurrence. It is interesting to note that not only is the antagonist of the movie based in reality, but the soundtrack itself holds itself to a certain level of realism in portraying the threat it builds suspense towards. As the scene continues, the volume and intensity of the soundtrack heightens. Additionally, the frequency and amount of distinct noises in the soundtrack becomes more chaotic as the characters get closer to experiencing the first impact of shrapnel. Stone announces a sighting of the shrapnel at 1:43 in the video which is accompanied by a violen crescendo typical of many horror movies.

At the end of this scene, as Stone detaches and is launched into the depth of space, the soundtrack briefly dies down for about 15 seconds. This is accompanied by a visual shot of Stone retreating into the black backdrop of space. The use of this soundtrack reflects terror in a apt and effective manner, by alluding to the emptiness of space and the apparent doom of Stone’s situation.

Another Horror trope that Gravity utilizes is the element of surprise. A common technique in Horror films for invoking fear in the audience is to cut quickly and surprisingly to a disturbing image. In Gravity, when Stone and Kowalski are searching the explorer for survivors, there is a shot of them peering into to the inside of the hull. As the camera pans in, we observe a Marvin the Martian toy floating towards the camera. The audience’s gaze is directed towards this object as the camera pans with it until we get a shot of Stone observing the same object. All of a sudden, the head of a corpse enters abruptly from the left into frame. The shot is accompanied by a loud jarring noise on the soundtrack meant to shock and scare the viewer. This sequence is prototypical of almost all Horror films, as it is proven and effective way of scaring the audience. Gravity’s use of this technique lends credence to the notion of Gravity as a Horror film.


Nature as the Villain

Right from the onset of the film, Gravity makes it clear that the antagonist of the film is the reality of life in space. The film opens with white text appearing on a black background describing the perils of space. The texts read “At 600km above planet earth the temperature fluctuates between +248 and -148 degrees Fahrenheit”, “There is nothing to carry sound”, “No air pressure”, “No Oxygen” and finally “Life is impossible in space”. All these statements clearly suggest that the villain of the film is life outside our planet. The obstacles presented by this antagonist include lack of oxygen, freezing temperatures, and the difficulty of maneuvering in the face of gravitational and physical forces. All these obstacles serve to illustrate the terrifying reality of life in space as well as the innate limitation of humans to navigate these forces.

One of the most obvious perils of space travel is the lack of oxygen in space. At 15:15 seconds into the film, the camera presents a point of view shot from Stone’s perspective as she floats off into the depths of space with no way to maneuver herself back to safety. The audience gets a shot of her helmet readings revealing that she only has 10% oxygen left. The point of view shot effectively puts the audience into Stone’s situation, exaggerating the terror of the moment and reenforcing the dangers of life in space.

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Another scene that strongly highlights the threat of oxygen deprivation is when Stone’s level of oxygen is lethally low as she attempts to enter the space shuttle after Kowalski’s death. She enters the shuttle successfully but her oxygen is dangerously low as we begin to hear her deep grasps for air in the shuttle. Even though she is in the shuttle, she must wait for the air pressure to stabilize. As the camera shows the pressure percentage rise, the audience waits in anticipation through the struggled breathing of Stone. Eventually, the pressure stabilizes and Stone is able to take off her helmet and suit. She then takes a moment to appreciate the ability to breath normally and floats peacefully in the fetal position. This scene effectively highlights both the threat of oxygen depletion and the fact that breathing is an ability taken for granted on earth. The audience becomes more aware of Stone as mortal being with natural dependencies that are not a given in space.

Perhaps the most terrifying element of the film, is the character’s inability to maneuver through space with the ease that one is used to observing on earth. In the absence of an object to ground themselves, the characters in Gravity are constantly at the whim of the gravitational forces imposed upon them. A scene that illustrates this particularly well is the scene when Stone and Kowalski attempt to navigate their way to the ISS.

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The scene begins with Stone and Kowalski tethered together as they project themselves into the shuttle. Kowalski uses all the fuel to direct them towards the shuttle, resulting in Stone and Kowalski speeding towards the ISS. At this point, with no fuel, Stone and Kowalski’s movements are entirely at the whim of the gravitational forces imposed upon them. They slam into the ISS and fly off, floating helplessly through space desperately trying to grab onto something. At one point they detach from each other, leaving Stone helplessly falling away from the ISS. All of this movement highlights the limitations of maneuvering in space. The image below, with Stone and Kowalski flailing in the foreground and the earth taking up the background, does a good job of juxtaposing the helplessness of navigation in space with the comfort and safety that earth offers.

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Eventually, as Stone drifts away from the ISS, her foot get caught in a net of ropes. Kowalski eventually drifts towards her where Stone grabs the tether. However, Kowalski’s momentum carries him further away from the ISS, stretching the ropes and tether until they are entirely taught. Even though Stone and Kowalski both have an object to ground themselves with, they still are helpless to control their movements. This is illustrated well by the screenshot below of Stone and Kowalski being strechced out under the laws of physics. Kowalski realizes this and understands that if Stone is to live, he must detach so that she can be pulled back to the ISS. Here, natural forces reveal itself again to be the powerful antagonist of the film, taking another victim in Kowalski.

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Gravity makes use of many Horror elements to add to the terror and suspense of the film. Additionally, its commitment to conforming to reality and creating an antagonist purely out of natural forces and circumstance leads to a genuinely terrifying film at points. Though the film conforms to reality, it is important to note that it is a specific subset of reality that is not entirely accessible to the audience. The dangers of space travel are not commonly thought of or portrayed in the detail that Gravity deals with them. In this light, Gravity may be viewed as a cautionary tale about the persistent threats of space travel, a sentiment rarely portrayed in other space films that have a tendency to glorify space travel. This coupled with the consistent imaging of earth in the background of the film, suggests that perhaps venturing into space is not the wisest decision considering there is a planet below that offers the safety of breathable air, livable temperatures and the ability to move freely of ones own volition.

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