Umbilical Cords: Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity”

THE 17-MINUTE OPENING SHOT of Gravity is a dance of twirls and spirals, cables of various sorts, looping as the camera’s focal points, winding and unwinding, doubling back, gyrating. First there is the dark, formless void, then a glimpse of the Earth’s curvature, followed by another curve traced by a tiny dot gliding in from the right, which turns out to be the space shuttle The Explorer; it is in turn encircled by gliding human figures, rookie astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and veteran Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Meanwhile the camera, in the practiced hands of Emmanuel Lebezky, Cuarón’s longtime cinematographer, also weaves in and out, wrapping itself around these gliding objects as if it too were part of these nested formations, drawn to them by the revolving lines of a powerful force field.

The setting is the zero-G environment of the Earth’s upper orbit, but the film, true to its title, is in fact about gravitational pull: the material and immaterial bonds that keep us tethered, umbilical cords that never quite wither away, whether or not we know it or bargain for it. Some of these cords are literally lifelines on which our survival depends. The first time Stone tumbles into space when her tether is cut off is as traumatic as any of the larger catastrophes that befall her. But other cords — unforeseen, unyielding, and all-ensnaring — can be lethal. The disaster that leaves the two astronauts stranded is in fact the result of a spiraling chain reaction. A missile strike on a Russian satellite sends a hail of debris hurtling around the Earth, colliding with everything else in its hit path, destroying not only the Explorer but also the satellites that link it to Mission Control in Houston. The scene when Kowalski and Stone return to the Explorer only to find other crew members dead and frozen, and the spaceship damaged beyond repair, is as wounding as it is precisely because the umbilical cords are now pulling us back to a place that was once a shelter but is now the caricature of one, mocking us and grimacing at us like the Marvin the Martian figurine that floats by Stone’s shell-shocked face.

I’m reminded of the destruction of another shelter, the Pequod, at the end of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the loss of the only thing that could be called home for those at sea, especially those stranded on a whaleboat:

For an instant, the tranced boat’s crew stood still; then turned, “The ship? Great God, where is the ship?” Soon they through dim, bewildering mediums saw her sidelong fading phantom, as in the gaseous Fata Morgana; only the uppermost masts out of water; while fixed by infatuation, or fidelity, or fate, to their once lofty perches, the pagan harpooners still maintained their sinking look-outs on the sea. And now, concentric circles seized the lone boat itself, and all its crew, and each floating oar, and every lance-pole, and spinning, animate and inanimate, all round and round in one vortex, carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight.

Gravity, like Moby-Dick, is the tale of a sole survivor, barely making it out of a vortex in which the animate perish with the inanimate. In the film, though, there is a crucial difference between these two, indexed by their asymmetric manner of perishing. True, the animate can turn into the inanimate with supreme ease. Yet the abiding terror with which the event is contemplated and mourned suggests that human physicality is a different kind of physicality after all, not identical with and not reducible to that of non-sentient matter. The Russian satellite debris “comes back” every 90 minutes with renewed force each time from fresh collisions, but it is not the same as the astronauts coming back to their space shuttle; the arc of return in the latter is driven by an instinct, an elemental need born of our psychology and physiology, that has no meaning for the former.

It is not for nothing that one of the most memorable shots of Sandra Bullock is of her curled up like a fetal ball. “Umbilical cord” here is not limited to just one stage of life, something we outgrow. On the contrary, it is the enduring mark of our dependency — earthlings that we are, vulnerable beyond words, with no ability to survive outside of one tiny globe, the only one that offers the life-sustaining environment we need. The astronaut’s tethers, the parachute cords, the cables that bind the space capsule to the shuttle, all hark back to that primordial habitat.

Sixty percent of Gravity was shot inside a custom-made nine-by-nine foot cube called the “Light Box,” fitted out with 4,096 LED bulbs, programmed so that the CGI visual effects could be seamlessly meshed with the filmed action. It is a “shelter” of sorts, not the most obvious kind, but serviceable. Once inside it Bullock was in total isolation. There was no movie set she could see, no human being with which she could interact; the only contact she had was to the voice in her headset. And even though she had trained for four months prior to the shooting to simulate the motions of someone in zero gravity, she had to be strapped to a 12-wire rig devised by Special Effects supervisor Neil Corbould, lifting her or rotating her at angles most humans are not capable of, manipulated by a team of puppeteers brought in from the West End production of War Horse, while computer-controlled robot arms wielded cameras that captured these images. It took so much time to get Bullock in and out of these contraptions that between scenes she often chose to stay inside that cube, for hours on end.

Being at once solitary and tethered isn’t just a visual conceit the film repeats over and over. It was the actual existential state for Bullock in the process of filming, the physical and psychological condition that made her performance possible. What does this endlessly replicated fetal dependency say about the movie? And what does it say about our species that we are conceived in that way, with bondage folded into the very contours of our individuation?

Again I think of Moby-Dick, especially a chapter called “The Monkey Rope,” a meditation on human bondage occasioned by the rope fastened to the sailor cutting up the whale and to another sailor — Queequeg and Ishmael in this case — “so that for better or for worse, we two, for the time, were wedded; and should poor Queequeg sink to rise no more, then both usage and honor demanded, that instead of cutting the cord, it should drag me down in his wake. So then, an elongated Siamese ligature united us.”

For Melville, elongated Siamese ligatures are by and large conduits of harm, as the fate of those on the Pequod can attest. Yet escape is not impossible: contrary to the dictates of the monkey rope, Ishmael does not in fact sink to the bottom of ocean with Queequeg. The Siamese twins in Gravity also have different outcomes, although, unlike the undramatized event in Moby-Dick, the parting of the ways here — the moment when Kowalski deliberately unhooks his end of the tether so that Stone can be pulled back to safety by the parachute cords — is not only heart-wrenching but also generates so much emotional resistance that the prolonged irresolution, with the two astronauts literally hanging in balance, seems itself to be the point. This is a nontrivial act, to say the least, the only “weighty” decision open to humans in an otherwise weightless environment.

In the end, it is the countervailing force, the emotional force, that the film honors. Even though Kowalski is physically gone, he is able to come back not once but twice — the first time as a radio voice giving Stone much-needed instructions on how to get from the International Space Station to the nearby Chinese Tiangong station, and the second time, when there is no longer any hope of his being still alive, as a hallucinated apparition, once again giving Stone much-needed instructions on how to use the landing rockets to propel the out-of-fuel Soyuz towards the Chinese station. Kowalski can never be truly gone, it seems, as long as there is a need desperate enough in Stone to call him back.

As this particular gravitational pull works its magic, however, its unmagical counterpart — the return of the debris every 90 minutes — also proceeds as expected. The Soyuz’s parachute cords, the same ones that had saved Stone just a moment ago, are now so hopelessly tangled up in the space station that the capsule might not be able to leave at all. Stone manages to cut loose in the nick of time, just before the ISS is destroyed by the debris. Traveling part of the way in the damaged Soyuz and the last leg of the journey with a fire extinguisher as a makeshift thruster, she reaches the Tiangong station, only to discover that it has been hit as well, knocked out of orbit. Still, its Shenzhou capsule, heating up dangerously, manages to get back to Earth, an underwater landing that requires Stone to shed her spacesuit and swim before she can emerge again on dry land.

It is the last womb-like enclosure — the last bit of sheltering and confining space — from which she has to extricate herself, just as she has had to extricate herself from the sheltering and confining space of the Chinese Shenzhou, and the sheltering and confining space of the Russian Soyuz. It is quite a relay, for none of these can do the job on its own, hobbled either by a built-in limit or by externally inflicted damage. And yet it is this defective chain, this umbilical cord made up of imperfectly functioning parts, with language barriers thrown into the equation, that actually delivers Stone — an arc that most faithfully reproduces the homing imperative of the Earth’s gravity. What makes this space odyssey more like Homer’s — a homing epic with a nonfatal ending — is the availability of these faulty vehicles, chancy links, questionable apparitions.

The second coming of Kowalski (shortage of oxygen can apparently produce such hallucinations) is especially interesting. Seen for the first time without his helmet, wisecracking, drinking vodka, Kowalski is also most recognizable as George Clooney at this point. Strangely, what comes to my mind is Clooney’s prior appearance in another homecoming movie, one that wears its connection to the Odyssey on its sleeve: the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? It is not an allusion everyone would recognize or accept, although Gravity is nothing if not allusive, citational — from the invocation of Sigourney Weaver in the Aliens series to the multiple echoes of Stanley Kubrick’s space epic, 2001. These too make up an umbilical cord of sorts. It’s a human specialty.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.