A lot has been said about the excitement, realism, and beauty of Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. Most will agree that it is a fun experience but I must disagree with some critics such as David Denby from The New Yorker who claim that, though good, it is "not a film of ideas, like Kubrick's techno-mystical 2001." While the ideas of the film may take a back seat to the adventure, I believe there is an interesting commentary on humanity running throughout in the form of symbolism.
SPOILER ALERT: This analysis covers major plot points of the film and should not be read before watching.
Watching the movie, I was struck by an important theme buried just beneath the surface of the nail-biting action: evolutionary regression (or de-evolution) leading towards rebirth. In a way, it's the exact opposite of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey which charts humankind's evolutionary advancement through space travel. Cuaron is taking us in the opposite direction biologically, technologically, and spiritually.
The first layer that struck me was the biological regression. The movie begins with astronauts slowly coming into frame from the distance and we learn about their humanity afterwards. Later, after the events of the first act, when Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) accomplishes her first major goal, we are met with a stunning image of her returning to a fetal state. Visually, she curls into the recognizable posture of a developing fetus as the tethers of her space suit float to form a suggestive umbilical cord.
Heavy handed, sure. But beautifully executed. In this, she has begun her biological regression.
At the end of the second act, when Dr. Stone has finally broken away from the Russian ship (and, perhaps, humanity) she has made another symbolic leap backwards into the animal kingdom. After her failed attempt at communicating with an unknown radio frequency, she is left barking like a dog as her only fulfilling interaction.
Finally, at the end of the third act, when she is freed and safe, we see her character become a primordial being; swimming from the water to the surface and taking her first unstable step onto land. For anybody that has had an introduction to evolution, this is the iconic moment of a new chapter for Life. And for Dr. Stone, this is the first step in her new life. She has been torn down, and de-evolved, so she can begin again. Just as the space program and satellite communication systems of the rest of the world must begin again. (We'll get to technology in a minute.)
The key piece to this symbolic puzzle hit me upon the second viewing of the movie. On the right shoulder of the astronaut suits is the following patch depicting mankind's evolution from Ape to Human to Astronaut.
As far as I can find, this is not a real NASA patch and was created specifically for the movie. This patch is sort of a badge of pride at our own accomplishments (biologically AND technologically) that are about to be torn apart - thematically and physically.
The technological regression is tied directly to the plot. We start with Astronauts working on advancing the technology of their station. In fact, Dr. Stone's sole purpose is to install new software that she created.
Very quickly into the movie, this is all destroyed by technology itself. Satellites, in a chain reaction, have all crashed into each other sending debris at deadly speeds into orbit. When learning of this, Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) remarks that "half of America just lost Facebook." Besides being a witty way to illustrate the roles satellites play in our day to day lives, it marks an important moment of technological advancement (or in this case, regression.) Technology, society, and communication are no longer tied together. With this, we are thrust back into the past.
Dr. Stone's goals throughout the rest of the movie become more and more basic technologically, like a backwards history of human achievement. Transportation (getting to the ship), controlling fire (the Russian space station is on fire), and simple shelter (her re-entry on the Chinese vessel that blocks her from harsh elements) all become more important than exploration and advancement.
Finally, in her last dire struggle in the water, she must shed her last connection to technology (her space suit) in order to survive and be reborn. As she swims to the surface she is met with untouched Nature. Bugs buzz, frogs swim, with no sign of humanity in site. And if you remember, Kowalski's last remarks before losing contact are of the beauty of the sun rising over the Ganges.
And finally, the film comments briefly on culture in the form of religion or spirituality. In the beginning there is no mention of religion. When she boards the Russian module in act 2, we see a close up image of a picture of Jesus that a previous Astronaut placed on the computer. In this scene, she is met by a spirit (Kowalski) who gives her the strength to carry on and inspires her to pray and speak of the Christian concept of heaven. Next, on the Chinese vessel, we are met with a statue of the Buddha as she begins her re-birth (a core element of Buddhism) and the film takes us back to a new cycle of life.
Through these biological, technological, and spiritual regressions, we are given a thought provoking comment on both the past and our future. I believe Cuaron is making an argument for the stripping down of our technological selves and a return to the essential aspects of humanity before we go any further on our journey. In order to keep advancing, we almost need to start over and realize where we came from. Our basic needs must take precedent over our advancements. In a way, it is the opposite of 2001: A Space Odyssey yet, in a way, it fits very neatly as an expanded examination of the 2nd act of 2001 in which the Astronaut, David, must triumph over technology, Hal 9000, in order to take the next step in evolution. Only for Dr, Stone and the argument of Alfonso's Cuaron's film, we must first let gravity take us back down to Earth - and back to our true selves - to do so.
An article came out yesterday in The Daily Beast where Cuaron discusses the darwinian ending:
“In this case, it’s about adversity and the possible outcome as a rebirth,” he says. “It’s the optimistic scenario, the Darwinian chart at the end. She comes from the primordial soup, crawling out into the mud, and then she’s on all fours, and then she’s standing up curved like an ape, until she goes completely erect.”