A combo of Oscar shit and phantom vomit (as plastered to the face of the cosmically adrift, raised at the start of Mal Ahern’s great essay) brought me back to thoughts I had after watching Gravity a couple months ago. The main thought was that the entire narrative is utterly, peculiarly insufferable, a one-human Armageddon in which, much like Zero Dark Thiry reduces geopolitics to a single woman’s “intuition” and abstract thirst for vengeance, the attempt to survive outside the planet boils down to just how bad you want to live, how dig you can deep into the reserve of species-being. Free will and elbow grit handily trump orbital swarms of death-dealing debris. Provided, that is, that you really want it. (And are haunted by the encouraging specter of People‘s Sexiest Man Alive, 2006 edition.)
The thicker version of the thought that nagged me is that this seemingly total split between two dominant aspects – (1) Aliens without aliens, plus total indifference of velocity and mass to those caught in a storm of it and 2) “I must survive because that is what my dead daughter would want” triumph of the human – is no split at all, nor a simple victory of the latter over former at the conclusion. Instead, it’s a trap set by humanism, metis (i.e. cunning dissimulation) in the service of what insists that it truly is more than just a dissimulation, camouflage, technique, predetermination, and history. That whether or not they float over us like baby planets, the tears aren’t crocodile. History is what hurts, and human history is what cries over spilt life.
The trap seems to work like this. A hypervitalism (that will to survive taken as noble bedrock, rather than hardwired compulsion that can’t choose otherwise) and mastery over the hostile/alien sets out its bait: that hostility itself, a horror of the cosmos and a promise of extended silence, all things rare in popular cinema. (Even Event Horizon had stake its malignity on a distinctly human framework of Hell.) Implausible, sure, but the camera still might come undone from a fixity on the face. It does for the first minutes. Hollywood might tangle with the unrecuperable.
The bait is itself a trap. That is, the thing that draws us in is the prospect of watching a quite literal trap of speed, sharpness, sound, and time enfold around what will struggle to get out of it. So it waves those allegedly lethal snagging fuel lines like tendrils to unfurl IMAXishly, and maybe, just maybe, all the characters will be dead by minute 20 and we can just float around for a good hour and join the racing trash. (Finally.) Maybe the ice will creep slow and lichen across a fractured face plate. Maybe the ice will be made of vomit.
And so, jerking the line, the trap-film strips the armor off its its scapegoat and locks her in a small pen where she waits to be gobbled up by a subjectless beast (Space itself, or, in the film’s grander terms, Death). The scapegoat escapes, climbs back in, switches pens, weeps, floats like a fetus, mourns her lost daughter, moves to another failed container, and the whole scenario keeps putting off the inevitable, further and further, while subjecting her to physics experiment-cum-torment after torment as if this was Scientific American‘s production of Justine, until… until the actually inevitable happens. After literally screaming “I want to live!”, she does just that. As if it was just a matter of willpower.
She lives and lands, ensconced in fire, but does not burn, and then flooded with water, but does not drown, and swims free and kisses the mucky earth, having rediscovered her faith not just in her own life but Life itself.
One shouldn’t expect more, especially the hamfisted Life<->Mother equation, from a director so obsessed with reproductive futurity as guiding star of history (*cough* Children of Men *cough*). And the structure is hardly new. Yet it seems to be creeping back more and more these days. See, for instance, the way that large-budget action sci-fi of recent years veritably turns on using the digital to prop up the wheezing analog, be it steam or blood, even if that trap fails over and over again.
Soundtrack for reading: Menace Ruine’s “Disease of Fear”
The ‘Vomit’ Cut
15 minutes into the film, while on a spacewalk to put in the whatever, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) vomits inside of her space suit. As expected, it clings to her like a wraith. It is green and warm and vile. Blinded by vomit, depthless, she misses the rung of the ladder. Blinded by vomit that cannot be wiped away, she drifts off slow, with nothing to stop her, no lifeline, no tissue, no breathmint.
It turns out that the infinity of space is not black or ancient or soothing in its nihil. Through the scrim of puke, the infinite is Ecto Cooler.
The ‘Space is Hell but Humans are Devils’ Cut
Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) had a relationship that ended badly. Kowalski did not take it well, and, to boot, he’s a seriously shitty man. You’d know it even if you didn’t find the little that remained of the cats. She never did, but she knew. Amidst the chaos of the circling debris, when she reaches for his hand, because bygones are bygones and to be human is to learn to forget sometimes, he chooses instead to give her a eensy-weensy push. The smallest nudge of a finger, covering the space of barely one centimeter. Touchscreen soft.
That’s all it takes. Infraslim murder. With nothing to grab, away she goes. Kowalski gives her a thumb’s up. Infraslim murder.Rather than listen to her pleas, Kowalski decides to loop into her earpiece a ringtone version of Paul Simon’s “Slip Slidin’ Away.” Meanwhile the theater doors have been locked. The tracking shot has an hour to go.
Somewhere around minute forty, she realizes that her daughter’s death was no accident, no accident at all. Someone has cranked the volume way, way up. I fear that our nose is bleeding.
The ‘Solaris’ Cut:
Stone makes it to the International Space Station (ISS). Kowalski – not a cat-killing monster in this version – sacrificed himself to make this possible. It was very human of him, although we have some reason to suspect that he was willing to cash in his remaining years to simply be That Guy for all time, in every version of existence. No matter, the stubble looked good, and Stone is safe. Oxygen has returned. Yet she is not alone in the ISS.
Her daughter is inside.
Her daughter who died, she who animated the entire drama, she who cannot be forgotten is animate again. Warm and real. They hug, so tight the world could burst. How could it be? The smell, the smile, everything. Near everything. She can’t speak, but it does not matter. She will. New beginnings take time.
Slowly, though, it dawns that the daughter is wrong, somehow. Sort of like Gage in Pet Sematary, and even before he gets a hold of the scalpel. The wiring all futzed. The memories like the memories of another person that have been whispered to you over the course of years, every night, each night adds the contents of the days that happen to someone else and during those days, you stay in the night and rehearse them until they can be spoken aloud to the next person. But they are not not your own. One time I was out in the woods… you begin and the listener can’t but hear the phantom she in the mix.
Stone does not want to admit it, but she knows she cannot return with her. She must free the ghost to the cosmos. It belongs to the night and here it is always night, at least until the sun comes into view and then it so bright that eyes have no business doing anything more than closing. Look at the sun, honey, she says, tapping the dense window. The ghost is busy trying to short-circuit wires, lapping absent at the sparks. Look, sweetie. Look. The ghost-her looks and Stone does what she has to, and after replaiting the braids as she must, she releases the air lock for it to be free, to circulate, perhaps to look down through closed lids at the earth below as it grows ever smaller still.
Stone wipes away tears. She gathers what she needs before heading to the Soyuz escape pod.
The daughter has already strapped herself in the only seat. Stone cannot believe. The daughter acts like it’s no big whoop. Duh, Mom, her eyes spell, and she gets back to carving words into the screen with a knife: One time she was out in the woods
It’s harder this time, somehow, not just because the ghost feels so real or because it is no longer shy about using the knife, but because it knew what was coming and so its face was a mask of lies and of fear and hence of life.
She’s hardly resealed the lock when she hears it. Why, Mommy. Why. Directly behind her. The fucking thing has learned to speak. To mime and mock. You’re mine, snarls Stone. I’ll always be yours, coos the scurrying thing.
When she’s finished tying it down, it has also learned to puke. The ISS becomes a parade in slow-motion, drifting, drooped wet with bright bile. She shuts the door behind herself and climbs into the Soyuz. I’m not letting this begin over again. I’m not setting you free.
The time. Time returns Stone to herself, as whiplash. The debris will be coming in just… minutes, no, and it will tear the station to shreds. Stone must hurry. Not that lever. Remember. On the old Russian models, the thrusters are… Remember.
The debris breaks the earth’s horizon, coming around once again.
There are hundreds, no, thousands of her, hurtling toward the station, blotting out the sun, making not a goddamned sound.
The ‘Solaris Plus Vomit’ Cut:
Same as previous but replace daughter with a shimmering blob of Stone’s vomit that she barely managed to pry free from her face. No matter how many times it is sucked out into the void of space, back it comes, waiting.
Taunting. Weeping. Why, Mommy, it asks. Why. Loving.