Warning: Major spoilers ahead.
The plot of Gravity (2013) is apparently a simple one (literally a high concept). A space shuttle orbits Earth. Veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) does a spacewalk in a prototype propulsion pack while first-timer (mission specialist rather than professional astronaut) Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) attempts to repair a faulty communications card on the Hubble Space Telescope. All is peaceful until they are warned by Mission Control that a Russian satellite has exploded and the debris is heading towards them at very high speed. In the resulting collision the shuttle is destroyed and contact with the ground lost. The rest of the film is about the efforts of the two surviving astronauts – the other members of the shuttle crew having died in the catastrophe – to reach safety. The film looks wonderful, the 3D is superb, and the feeling of jeopardy is palpable.
Stone finds herself drifting after being flung away, but Kowalski retrieves her using his propulsion pack and they set out for the International Space Station. Trying to get her to calm down he learns that she had a daughter who died in a freak accident at the age of four. Unfortunately Stone’s oxygen supply is low, as is the power in the propulsion pack, and by the time they approach the station Stone’s tank is empty, leaving her reliant on the oxygen in her suit. They see that one of the Soyuz reentry modules is missing, indicating that the station has been abandoned, and the other has had its parachute deployed, leaving it incapable of descending to Earth safely.
As they reach the station, they overshoot, with Stone held only by a trailing parachute cable caught around her leg. Kowalski can see that his inertia will pull her free, leading to their deaths, but without him she can reach the shuttle. He decides to uncouple himself, and drifts away, telling her that she will not have time to go after him. Stone is able to enter the station and once there she strips off her suit and floats, curled, in the womblike space of the airlock.
The space station is destroyed in its turn by the debris as it orbits the earth, leaving Stone in the remaining descent module. Her one hope is to use it to reach a Chinese station a hundred kilometres away, but she finds that it is out of fuel. All hope seemingly lost, with the debris on its way towards her, she decides to speed up her death by turning off the oxygen while listening to a father with a baby transmitting from the planet’s surface in a foreign language. There is a knock on the hatch and she sees that Kowalski has managed to get back. He enters even though she is not wearing a space suit, and they have a conversation during which he reminds her that the module has retro rockets for landing, and these will enable it to reach the Chinese station. Stone then realises that she is still alone and that Kowalski was an hallucination.
Using the rockets, she heads to the station but it is clear that she is going to bypass it on her trajectory. She has a fire extinguisher with her so she exits the module and uses the extinguisher as a thruster to reach her target, just as the speeding debris reappears. While the station is being demolished, she climbs into the Chinese station’s capsule and tries to make sense of the instruments, pressing buttons semi-randomly until she obtains the correct sequence. As she falls towards the planet she manages to deploy the parachute, and lands in a body of water. Mission Control makes contact for a few moments as the inside of the module begins to burn, choking Stone with the smoke. She has to escape, but as she opens the hatch the capsule floods, and even though she gets out she is dragged down by the weight of her space suit. Fortunately the water is fairly shallow and she is able to remove her suit and swim to the land close by.
After Kowalski uncouples himself Stone reports to Houston, not knowing if they can hear her, that she is the only surviving crew member. But has she survived? We are aware that this is not an unproblematic narrative, a sort of Apollo 13-style drama, because of the scene where Kowalski reappears and knocks on the window. We assume initially that he has somehow managed to return, and there is a tease when he opens the hatch and Stone is shown with her arm over her face, presumably dead after being exposed to space. We are thrown into uncertainty when she is shown to be still alive, and our hesitation lasts until we are shown that Kowalski was never there. But was he a ghost, or hallucination? If the latter, her subconscious was telling her that she could use the retro rockets, but there is still the possibility that Kowalski’s spirit was giving her information. Whichever is correct, we understand that we cannot trust what we see.
Acknowledging then that this is not documentary realism, Stone’s survival seems astonishing given how many obstacles she has to overcome. They hint that she too may have died, and that perhaps part of the film shows her fantasy of reaching Earth. There are a number of points during her frantic attempts to save herself when this might have happened. She may have died in one of the fierce debris storms which have the power to annihilate space craft, and a piece of which goes straight through the head of the unfortunate colleague sharing their space walk. Or it is possible that while we see her restore the oxygen supply to the Soyuz module after Kowalski’s sudden appearance and disappearance, she had not in fact turned the oxygen back on, and the remainder of the film is a fantasy, and that she dies there. We have no way of interpreting whether the Asian father with the transmitter, or Mission Control, which crackles through briefly at the end, are veridical.
Right at the beginning of the film Mission Control notes her physical discomfort while working on the communications card. What if her medical condition were more serious than that suggests, indeed a fatal condition? This leads to the unsettling implication that if she died at the outset, then the entire film from that point might be her hallucination, everything we see from then unreliable (a parallel would be with Carnival of Souls). The Russian satellite might not even have exploded, except in the fantasy of her end of life experience. There is a moment when we are on the outside of Stone’s helmet, watching her through the visor, then the camera tracks in and suddenly we are inside her helmet with her, very close to her face. It is possible that this is a clue that we are being taken from a third-person perspective to hers, that from here we are sharing her subjectivity.
There are improbabilities which do not seem to arise merely from sloppy plotting by the filmmakers that do make sense following from these speculations. Remember that Stone is not a seasoned astronaut but is present on the mission because she has technical expertise in medical instrumentation. She is not familiar with how space works from personal knowledge, so her dying brain would not necessarily construct a scenario that adhered to scientific principles. Thus when she is spinning wildly through space after the shuttle is ripped apart it is astonishing that Kowalski is able to locate her, reach her, and stop her. When he is towing her to the International Space Station she runs out of oxygen, leaving her only what she has in her suit, and it seems remarkable that she is able to reach and enter the space station still conscious. Using the low-tech fire extinguisher to propel herself backwards in the correct direction while spinning wildly stretches credibility. While one may concede that the debris from the Russian satellite might circle the planet and catch the space International Space Station, it seems most unlikely that its path could then blast through the Chinese station, which would be in a different orbit. Stone is extremely lucky to be able to operate a module with instructions in Chinese under enormous stress, and to survive such a steep reentry, with bits flying off the outside and the instruments on fire. She is even luckier that she lands safely in such shallow water only a few yards from land, rather than the middle of the ocean, and can escape when the capsule fills and sinks, struggle out of her suit, and swim to the shore. A living Stone might not be able to do these things, but in fantasy they would be possible.
Alive, dying or dead, the arduous journey has been transformative. Now through her immersion she is reborn, the earlier pessimism about her life after her daughter’s death discarded as she feels the sand between her fingers in her relief. Stone’s figure in the final shot, walking away from the camera, has a slightly glossy CGI quality, as if the character is no longer part of our world. What from the publicity sounds like Open Water in space turns possibly into an insight into one person’s vision of the Afterlife. We don’t know if Stone is dead by the end or has survived, and the film can be read either way, but for her to survive we are asked to believe in an incredible amount of luck. Our uncertainty is reminiscent of Jacob’s Ladder, in which Jacob may have or may not have died in Vietnam. He even had a young child who had predeceased him, as Stone has. Jacob was beset by demons as he struggled to make sense of his reality and learn to let go of life. Stone struggles in a different way (Gravity’s strapline ‘Don’t let go’ is full of ambiguity) but eventually, one way or another, she overcomes the vacuum that threatened to destroy her. She reaches a place of peace that feels real to her if not quite to us, one in which she can expect to find her daughter, and possibly Kowalski, waiting for her.