Gravity is spectacularly beautiful, and utilizes 3D effects incredibly well. But I think the film also powerfully tells the story of a woman who is grieving the death of a child, but through her struggle to survive, she finds the will to live again.
What is it about space and grief? Is it that we think of space as “heaven,” or somehow populated by ghosts of loved ones, or is it a blank slate onto which we can project alternate versions of our lives? Or perhaps the coldness and isolation of space is an apt metaphor for the way grief isolates us. Space is a place where “life is impossible,” and yet somehow people are able to travel and work there. The strangeness and inscrutability of space, and the isolation of existing there provide fertile ground for exploring what happens inside and projecting it outward for us to see. Once I thought about this aspect of Gravity, I immediately thought of a handful of other films that successfully use these ideas to explore grieving in moving ways.
The underrated Rabbit Hole (2010) is not a space movie, but Becca and Howie, (played by Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) are living on separate planets. They are the parents of a 4-year old child who died, and how their individual grief separates them, and then the way they are able to find each other again. Becca is compelled to seek out the teenager, Jason, who was driving the car that hit her child. Jason has also been processing this death in his own way, and he has made a comic book about parallel universes. He says, “If space is infinite, there’s tons of yous out there, and tons of me.” Becca’s response: “I like that thought. Somewhere out there I’m having a good time.” The sheer expansiveness of space, although frightening, can also provide solace.
Another Earth (2011) explores this parallel universe idea more fully. A second earth appears in the sky, visible from our earth, and it becomes an opportunity. People of our Earth can enter a lottery to visit second Earth, and it is a chance to see how life would be if we hadn’t made the mistakes we’ve made, or an opportunity to see lost loved ones again. Rhoda is a young woman who had the potential to do anything she wanted, but because of a drunk driving accident, she killed a man’s wife and child, which effectively ended her ambitious life. She seeks him out, but doesn’t tell him who she is. Meanwhile, she waits to hear about the lottery.
Solaris is the classic space grief film. Made by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972, and remade by Stephen Soderbergh (starring George Clooney) in 2002. Solaris tells the story of a psychologist, Kris Kelvin, sent to a space station where strange things are occurring. The station is in orbit around a planet called Solaris. It turns out that the planet recreates lost loved ones as an attempt to communicate with humans. For Kelvin, this is manifested as his wife Hari, who committed suicide ten years ago. At first he is terrified, and send her out into space. Later she reappears, and he is able to accept her. The scientists are able to communicate that these visitors are unwanted, but at the end, Kelvin decides to go to the surface of Solaris, where he is reunited with people from his past.
In space, it seems, the division between alive and dead is less clear than on earth. George Clooney’s character in Gravity, Matt, revisits Ryan at a critical point, when she is ready to give up living. Is he a ghost, or is this experienced all in Ryan’s head? What is clear is that in space, what’s in your head is all that really matters, and I think this is why space is such a strong metaphor for grief. Whether someone is dead or alive, they still reside in your memory.