Dad Wanted a Boy: Feminism, Transcendence, and Cuarón’s Gravity (film review essay)

by Donovan Schaefer

Warning: Spoilertown, USA, directly ahead.

No American film has been more desperately in need of a feminist retelling than Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Now, with Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013), we have exactly that, a technical, cinematographic, and literary masterpiece that reverses the thematic polarity of the Kubrick original by flipping its astral trajectory: where 2001 draws a line of transcendence from a primitive terrestrial veld to the moon to Jupiter to “Beyond the Infinite,” Gravity starts in space and falls back to earth, offering a feminist counter-transcendence that re-orients the meaning and direction of “prayer.”

Both films have a bare-bones plot structure, using the extreme environment of deep space to swiftly shade in characterizations and dramatic tension.  2001 is made up of four short films, from “The Dawn of Man,” in which violent apes, inspired by the appearance of a mysterious monolith, learn to use tools and weapons, to three scenes of futuristic space travel, culminating in the journey of astronaut Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) to a transdimensional room beyond time, where he is transformed by the monolith into some sort of ascendant being.  In Gravity, a crew working on the Hubble telescope is hit by a wave of space debris and their craft destroyed.  The two survivors, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) try to make their way to a nearby space station, but Kowalski is lost in the process.  Stone, who we learn is still recovering from the death of her daughter, has a moment of doubt, but eventually reaches the station and from there makes it to a satellite with an escape pod, from which she returns to earth, crash-landing in a bay and then crawling her way onto a beach in the film’s closing scene.

In his 30th anniversary review essay of 2001, Roger Ebert wrote:

What [Kubrick] had actually done was make a philosophical statement about man’s place in the universe, using images as those before him had used words, music or prayer. And he had made it in a way that invited us to contemplate it–not to experience it vicariously as entertainment, as we might in a good conventional science-fiction film, but to stand outside it as a philosopher might, and think about it.

But you cannot stand outside of Gravity.  Where 2001 offers a series of perfectly centered, painterly landscapes, allowing our detached contemplation of the trajectory of ascension, Gravity pulls you in, snaring you with spinning perspectival shots and a near-absence of stable, balanced tableaux.  As my student Gebhard Keny observed when we studied Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men in a recent class, Cuarón’s signature technique of long, disorienting shots is designed to explode our habits of seeing, disrupting the genre codes that we use to calibrate our expectations about narrative and immersing us in a gripping, unknown set of cinematic parameters.  Gravity takes this, literally, into a third dimension.  It may be the most successful use of 3D projection to date because it exploits the new technology’s ability to pull us into a cinematic world for thematic effect.  The imagery of ropes and tethers metaphorizes the somatic entanglement of the audience in the film itself.

But Gravity’s inversion of 2001 plays out in their respective narrative trajectories, as well.  2001 begins with bodies–the birth of “consciousness” out of pre-human bodies still on the cusp of animality.  But over the course of the film, bodies recede further and further into the background, replaced by high-tech space suits, voiceless, empty space, computers, and then, in the film’s climax, a long sequence of abstract geometric color forms and tinted, lifeless planetscapes.  2001 is about the conversion of the body into an eyeball, a spectator’s body, a transcendent body that watches earth from a distance.  Gravity, by contrast, begins with bodies encased in bulky spacesuits but ends in an overwhelmingly incarnated body rising to her feet on earth.  Near the midpoint of the film, when Stone enters the ISS, we see her body taking on a dancer’s pose, a body on display as a body.  We see the form of the body–limbs, joints, muscles–a human body with its architecture of limits and possibilities, the inverse of 2001’s body progressively divorced from the earth and its own animality.

2001 uses the airless chamber of space to create a parable of inward human resolve and transcendence.  Gravity uses space to reinscribe the particularity and the contingency of human bodies–our frailty, our passions, and our neediness.  2001 is a crypto-existentialist fable about a transcendent self–the spectator of the earth, bathed in light–that emerges when all other connections are severed.  Gravity reveals a self that is itself made up of connections: in Cuarón’s rendering, connections to the earth and to other bodies through planes of vulnerability are what we are.  Where 2001 is about disconnection and the authentic self that emerges through increasing isolation and remoteness from the earth (a fiction useful for white, middle-class men who have never been subject to state violence in the form of incarceration or that uniquely twisted form of torture known as solitary confinement), Gravity is about the invisible network of forces that binds bodies one to another.

2001 tells a story of the world of men spilling out into the solar system, where women are stewardesses or secretaries in jumpsuits (save for a few supernumerary female scientists who blend in with the furniture), telescoping out to the solar system, its old hierarchies intact.  It tells a story of the first flourish of technology born in violence, and the arc of human technology out of animality and into space.  It is a fantasy of unlimited amibition, a transcendent self–explicitly coded as male–that learns to break out of the world of women, animals, and bodies.  Lisa Guenther writes that under the conditions of solitary confinement–like the alien dwelling where Bowman spends his life–bodies “become unhinged,” “the articulated joints of our embodied, interrelational subjectivity are broken apart.” (Guenther: 2013, xii) But this devastation of the subject in the circumstances of solitary confinement is not the theme of 2001.  Instead, Bowman has a transcendent encounter with the obelisk of human intelligence, before being reborn as an observer orbiting the earth.

As in Cuarón’s two previous self-created works, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and Children of Men (2006), the trajectory of Gravity is about the passing away of the world of men.  In YTMT, two callow teenage boys are brought face to face with the vulnerabilities at the heart of their masculinity and their sexuality by a dying woman.  In CoM, a police state world of male soldiers, apathetic wanderers, and ruthless revolutionaries is brought to its knees by an infant girl.  In Gravity (without throwing over the important contributions of the secondary male character, Kowalski, who serves as a sort of flattened-out wisdom figure for Stone) the maternal axis of a mother and daughter becomes the heart of the film’s thematic and narrative climax.  Unlike Bowman, who has no family and no connection to the earth, Stone is drawn back by the force of her attachments to memory, to her daughter, and to life.

Ryan Stone’s explanation of her first name–“My dad wanted a boy”–perfectly captures Cuarón’s intervention in the space horror genre: instead of a male body that is free to drift into space, he spins the genre 180 degrees by giving us a female body that is driven by her attachments to return to earth.  This is Cuarón’s politics (less sharp-edged in Gravity than in his earlier works, but still present if we view it through an auteurial prism): he wants to resurrect a second-wave feminist question, to prompt us to seriously ask ourselves what kind of world male bodies have built.  Roger Ebert wrote of 2001 that it proves “[w]e became men when we learned to think… we are not flesh but intelligence.”  Cuarón wants to know what happens when the human race becomes “women” instead of “men,” flesh instead of “intelligence,” animal instead of transcendent.

This transformation is captured in the efficient trajectory the script follows in developing Stone’s sense of religion.  Towards the end of the film, Stone mentions that she never prayed because no-one taught her how.  This monologue frames the final line of the film–“Thank you”–as a prayer.  But this is not a prayer to a transcendent God, a prayer to power or a prayer from the powerful.  It is a prayer facing down, a prayer to the waterlogged loam on the beach.  It is not a prayer declaimed in confidence or glory, but a prayer ringed by uncertainty, kneeling in the mud.  It is what John D. Caputo would call a “wounded prayer,” a prayer without certainty or assurance.

If 2001 is fixated on the overcoming of death, Gravity is concerned with what feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen in her classic Becoming Divine, following Hannah Arendt, labels natality. “If an obsession with death,” she writes, “orients philosophers to a preoccupation with other worlds, by contrast taking birth as the center of our imaginary will direct our attention to this world, to our connection, through the maternal continuum, with all others who have been born.” (Jantzen: 1999, 150) Rather than a floater, a soaring, gleaming obelisk, a transcendent male superman who uses space as the horizon of his escape from the earth, Gravity is about a stone, a body that returns to earth, to contingency, and to memory, and says thanks.

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