The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

The Orbit of Being (Thoughts on ‘Gravity’)

Back in the day, in English class, we all learned that stories can be broken down into a few basic conflicts: Man Versus Man, Man Versus Himself, etc. The one that always seemed the least interesting to me was Man Versus Nature. You don’t really see this conflict very often. It’s really the hardest kind of story to tell and make interesting, without somehow personalizing Nature in a way that makes it unrealistic

Even stories that seem to be about overcoming nature’s destructiveness most of the time become stories of Man Versus Man, by situating the narrative within the context of human hubris or greed, for example, and complicating the story with elements of human conflict versus cooperation. Jaws, for instance, is a pretty pure Man Versus Nature story, but it couldn’t sustain its drama without the Man Versus Man elements—such as the arrogance and greed of the Amity Island mayor to keep the beaches open despite the threat, and shark-hunter Quint’s Ahab-like obsessiveness is needed to enliven the drama.

The rare survival stories that avoid the Man Versus Man elements inevitably become Man Versus Himself dramas. Think of Castaway, for example. This is because it is hard not to have a bad guy, even if the bad guy must be made an aspect of the protagonist’s own character.

In his Poetics, Aristotle laid down the number-one rule that character is fate and vice versa—that what happens to a person in a story must be linked in some significant way to who they are, why they are who they are, or who they become by the time the story is over. This rule has always governed storytelling, but beginning in about the early 80s, with the rise of scriptwriting gurus who created formulas that turned Hollywood storytelling from an art into something more like a science, the relationship of character to fate became much, much more predictable.

For example, Syd Field took Aristotle’s principle and formulated what he called the “circle of being”—the idea that a character’s story arc is a continuation of some trauma or failure in that character’s backstory. It’s a good idea when judiciously applied, but most Hollywood scriptwriters aren’t judicious. Nowadays when we go to a movie, we can bet money on the fact that whatever predicament the protagonist is in is ultimately their own fault or at least linked to something they themselves did, and we can be sure that getting out of the predicament (and becoming a hero) means undoing some past mistake and learning a great life lesson in the process.

I think what people love about Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity is not just its great visuals but also its dogged resistance to tying its narrative more than minimally to anybody’s past traumas or to their growth as a person. Cuaron was clearly intent on purifying his story of extraneous, schmaltzy melodrama as much as possible. This, as much as those visuals, is what makes the story feel real.

For example, the fascinating complex opening sequence makes clear that the disaster is nobody’s fault except the Russians’ miscalculations, certainly not the fault of anything protagonist Ryan Stone did. (The merciful Cuaron even finds a very clever way to redeem the Russians: It is their Soviet-era Soyuz module that serves as Ryan’s lifeboat later.) The one thing we know about Ryan’s backstory is that she had a daughter who died, and here we may feel like we are being set up for a standard circle-of-being character arc. In fact, we are, but in a minimalistic way that undercuts any expectations that the protagonist is going to redeem herself for some past failure.

Just like the catastrophe that begins the narrative, Ryan’s daughter’s death is explicitly made by Cuaron to be nobody’s fault—she slipped and hit her head on a playground, “the stupidest thing.” In other words, her daughter, too, was killed by gravity—the dumb thing makes everything move in a straight line at a constant velocity unless struck by another thing moving in a different straight line (like a head versus the earth’s surface, or two bodies colliding in orbit). The sequential cataclysms that propel the film make vivid how perfectly mindless are the billiard-ball Newtonian principles that dominate our world. Matter in motion has no malice, no intention for good or ill. You can get infuriated and upset and scared, but there’s no one there to blame or get mad at or hate. Gravity is, indeed, rather like the sharks that ate Quint’s WWII shipmates in Jaws: It has black empty eyes, “a doll’s eyes.”

What kind of protagonist does it take, in Aristotelian terms, to face and perhaps defeat a doll-eyed antagonist like gravity? Well, precisely someone with their own unique and powerful momentum and inertia. This is the singular quality Ryan Stone possesses. She says when she learned of her daughter’s death, she just “kept driving” (and listening to the radio), from that moment forward in her life. I can’t help but feel that casting Sandra Bullock in this role—an object in motion that stays in motion—was a clever nod to Speed (with which this film bears more than a little resemblance, when you think about it). Instead of doing something different or giving up in despair, she just kept on quietly (perhaps a bit soullessly) following the specific trajectory she had at the moment she learned of the loss. She’s rather like, well, an astronaut in this respect: a bit boring, a bit lacking in the kind of emotion and drama that is typical of non-astronauts. But highly capable, ultimately resilient, and the only kind of person who could prevail in such an extreme situation.

The closest Gravity comes to replicating the standard circle-of-being formulas we’re used to seeing in movies is the scene where Ryan dreams about her lost shipmate Matt Kowalski joining her as she drifts off to her final sleep in the chilly, fuel-less Soyuz. His phantasm exhorts her not to give up, and in the process reminds her of a possibility about the Soyuz spacecraft that she had consciously forgotten. There’s a direct parallel here to a remarkable moment late in the harrowing survival documentary Touching the Void, a film that Gravity reminds me a lot of.

At climber Joe Simpson’s “lowest” moment, near the end of his horrific journey down Siula Grande with one broken leg—when he is so near the base camp he can smell his fellow climber Simon Yates’ urine (because he is crawling through it)—he finally beings to feel hopeless, because he thinks Simon has abandoned the camp. But Joe’s own brain comes to rescue in a fashion that even he, in his book on his ordeal, didn’t detect (not having read Freud, apparently): An annoying pop song, Boney M’s “Brown Girl in the Ring,” suddenly becomes stuck in his head. With the refrain, “show me your motion,” it is his own unconscious mind exhorting him to keep moving and not give up. As when Ryan wakes up in her cold capsule, realizes she’s really alone, but also realizes there’s still hope, It’s a weirdly triumphant moment.

Touching the Void is in fact the only film I can think of that rivals Gravity in its realistic intensity and lack of extraneous melodrama. Although the true story of Joe Simpson’s survival is complexified and complicated by moral conflict (Simon Yates’ controversial but necessary decision to cut the tether binding them and let Joe fall off the mountain to his almost certain death), the narrative really centers on Joe’s own dogged persistence after that point, his pure unwillingness to let the stupid elements kill him, despite a broken leg, dehydration, and a thousand other things. It’s a riveting story, and it needs no circle of being: We don’t know where in his past Joe got his overwhelming will to survive; it’s clearly just who he is. We only find ourselves wondering whether we, in the same awful boat, would find even a fraction of that quality in ourselves.

As with Joe Simpson, Cuaron’s protagonist Ryan Stone may be forced to learn about her true capacities, but she’s not undoing any past failures, the way she would be in a movie by most any other filmmaker. She’s just doing what she’s been doing ever since dumb gravity killed her daughter, which is precisely what she was doing before then too: moving forward. Is this the circle of being? Yes and no. More like a straight line in curved space, the dogged persistence of a satellite or a moon following its orbit.

Gravity’s achievement is not just its incredible visual effects but also the courage of its minimalistic storytelling: It manages to tell a truly Man Versus Nature story untainted by Man Versus Man conflict and with only the barest minimum of Man Versus Himself schmaltz to get in the way. In the hostile, airless space of today’s overblown and predictable special-effects-driven epics, it is like a breath of fresh air.



I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

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