The Void and Us

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock find themselves floating in a cold and remorseless abyss in Alfonso Cuaron's new film, "Gravity."

George Clooney and Sandra Bullock find themselves floating in a cold and remorseless abyss in Alfonso Cuaron’s new film, “Gravity.”

 

Mysteries of #Gravity: How Hubble (350mi up) ISS (230mi up) & a Chinese Space Station are all in sight lines of one another.

Mysteries of #Gravity: Why Bullock’s hair, in otherwise convincing zero-G scenes, did not float freely on her head.

Mysteries of #Gravity: Why anyone is impressed with a zero-G film 45 years after being impressed with “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

On October 7, famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took to Twitter and exposed the scientific inaccuracies of Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity over the course of eleven tweets. Tyson’s tweets, which range from humorous to acerbic, criticize Gravity’s portrayal of space and certain plot devices.

But his last, more poignant tweet leaves questions unanswered:

#Gravity: Why we enjoy a SciFi film set in make-believe space more than we enjoy actual people set in real space.

Tyson’s series of tweets contrasts with the warm reception the film has received from critics and audiences alike. Gravity’s dramatic rise has been a story in and of itself. At the top of the box office for weeks, the film is now the highest-grossing movie ever to be released during the fall. Reviews sprinkled with space puns laud its dazzling cinematography and special effects. Friends and colleagues tell each other to see the film in 3D, or don’t bother.

The film’s lead protagonists, two NASA astronauts played by Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, are undeniably better known than the two American flight engineers currently aboard the International Space Station. Tyson’s last tweet points to this discrepancy. Gone are the days when astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride dominated dinner conversations and the posters on children’s bedroom walls. NASA’s present situation is bleaker.

Why then are the real life astronauts and scientists and engineers of the day not receiving the same attention as those in Gravity?

***

One of the main themes in Gravity is the fear of the void, a characteristic unique to space. Gravity begins with white letters against a black background describing space’s inability to support life. It then cuts to a shot of Earth from above. The camera lingers on the serene view, an image of undisturbed stillness. Faint radio chatter like the buzzing of mosquitoes slowly increases in volume, and random objects begin to drift into frame. The Hubble Space Telescope comes into view, along with an astronaut wearing a jet pack joyfully tumbling through the inky blackness.

Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock), an astronaut on her first mission, is in the middle of repairing the Hubble Space Telescope. Commanding officer and old-timer Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is attempting to break the record for longest spacewalk. This peaceful scene is soon cut short. A cloud of space debris caused by a Russian missile strike speeds towards the astronauts and makes impact. Dr. Stone is hurled far away from her origin by the fast-moving debris. With no forces to counteract her, she is left tumbling in place, only the sounds of her gasping breaths to be heard.

Watching Gravity feels curiously like having an out-of-body experience – an all-encompassing, physical feeling of weightlessness, as if heavy limbs are treading through remorseless tides of the ocean. Director Alfonso Cuarón does not simply portray what space is like; he compels the audience to feel space in all its celestial sublimity, from its devastating isolation to its dizzying sense of exhilaration.

This overwhelming atmosphere becomes the ideal setting for the horror that follows. It is one thing to be subjected to the terrors of Earth, but it is another to be without solid ground, the experience suddenly markedly discomfiting. What makes Dr. Stone’s ordeal even more disturbing is that there is no villain, per se. There is merely one person at the mercy of a vast and infinitely sinister power. But then, not quite sinister: the landscape of space is not an intentional villain with malicious intent, it merely is – an unforgiving force of physics that looms more ominously than anything the human imagination could conceive.

Gravity exposes the fear that we all possess: the fear of emptiness, of the void, of pure nothingness. Like Dr. Stone tumbling without pause, we have no anchor to grasp onto, no ground to set our feet upon. We are terrified.

But in Gravity, the human instinct to connect to another and find comfort in that communion ultimately triumphs. A fellow astronaut and friend who plays his favorite country music to break the silence in space. A stranger’s voice on the radio, singing a Chinese lullaby. We too feel that connection as we follow Dr. Stone on her obstacle-ridden journey back to Earth. Gravity succeeds because the audience leaves the theater with this empathy, and not fear or loneliness.

***

If Gravity features the horror of the abyss, space exploration challenges that fear. The point of space exploration, as a certain Starfleet captain once said, is to explore strange new worlds, and to seek out new life and new civilizations. It is the ability to make something from absolute nothingness. Just because something can’t be seen, does not mean it doesn’t exist. It is this uncomplicated belief that people firmly hold onto – not only the astrophysicists and planetary scientists, but also us ordinary folk.

But the interpretation of the void as a realm of possibilities has been clouded ever since Americans entered the space race. During NASA’s heyday, the void was regarded as a place of contest, another arena for the Cold War to play out. The Soviets’ launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957 surprised and incited most Americans, who sought to extend the tradition of Manifest Destiny to the “next frontier”: space. This event catalyzed the space race, and Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1958. Three years later, the enterprise impelled President Kennedy to boldly declare that the U.S. would land a man on the moon by the end of the decade, leading to the creation of the Apollo program.

Even with the threat of the USSR gone and a concrete impetus for space exploration no longer evident, the significance of the void continues to be murky. Space is now painted either red or blue depending on who sits in the Oval Office. In his essay “The Case for Space: Why We Should Keep Reaching for the Stars,” Neil deGrasse Tyson points to partisan divides as the main reason for the decline of space exploration that began in 2004. Democrats and Republicans criticized the space policies of Bush and Obama respectively, both parties citing similar apprehensions over “lack of details” or funding during each of their respective tenures. Two missions that NASA had hoped to launch to Mars in 2016 and 2018 were accordingly canceled in 2012 due to budgetary cuts. NASA’s budget, which peaked at over 4% of the federal budget during the Apollo program, has dwindled to about a tenth of that at 0.48% today. Space exploration is inevitably put aside.

Politics should not extend to space, a point that Tyson implies but never explicitly states. In an ideal world, space exploration is not spurred by a rivalry with another nation, nor inhibited by political partisanship. This raises a question: why, then, do we go into space?  It is a kind of blank slate upon which we write our motivations, political and otherwise.  And it is a void, one whose horror is made clear enough in Cuarón’s film.

But the void does not exist to deter us. We explore space not despite the void, but because of it. Something pulls us into that darkness, to step into the unknown and unknowable. People gazed wonderingly at stars millennia ago simply because of some itch. It’s the same itch we get when we look at a photograph like “Pale Blue Dot,” which shows us in a fragile place, a miniscule dot awash in a sea of darkness. But there is beauty there – the dim watercolor-like streaks are proof that there is more.

And yet, in the end, humankind is left victim of the same nothingness that Dr. Stone confronts. Recall the beginning of Gravity: we are perpetually tumbling in the midst of immeasurable blackness, hesitant to go out and discover.

 

Emily Tu

About Emily Tu

Emily Tu is a sophomore in the comparative literature department. She likes detective stories and breakfast foods. Contact her at eatu@princeton.edu.
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