|George Clooney in his astronaut gear.|
Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone takes a spiritual journey in outer space. Robert Redford's Our Man struggles to survive in a sea a swirl in existentialist questions and naturalist despair. And, minus George Clooney's presence as an astronaut version of The Rig Veda's Yama ("king of the dead, the first mortal to have reached the other world and the pathmaker for all who came after him"), the similarities between these two films and their 2013 release dates launch them into feelings of Siamese twinness.
Both films tend towards the allegorical. All is Lost takes place on the open sea, inviting comparisons to the works of Homer and Melville, but, because of its protagonist's isolation, the film also makes for ready comparisons with The Life of Pi or The Old Man and the Sea, perhaps even Robinson Crusoe or Tom Hanks in Castaway. The film is, because of its archetypal premise, quite familiar, and yet the lack of dialogue and relationships of any kind render it something quite new, because Our Man, played by Redford, encounters no other human entities in his 106 minutes on film. No flashbacks occur. No voice over is present. The man is entirely alone, and with the exception of one tremendous application of the word "Fuck", he is entirely silent too.
Moreover, his only contact with the world is material. His boat becomes damaged because it collides with a shipping container. Make what metaphor you will of that inciting incident, but it seems to suggest that human relations are either careless or mechanical in nature, running roughshod over individuals adrift in the tides of existence. Or there is the instance when Our Man sets off flares, trying to snare the attention of a cargo ship built too large to witness the small, yet significant, lives being passed over in its massive wake. Sandra Bullock's Ryan Stone, however, is never quite so alone as Redford's Our Man.
Where he is forced into isolation by trade winds and shipping routes outside his control, he remains determined throughout to survive his ordeal, to rejoin the lives and global society from which he has been both severed and isolated. This determination, however, is not always present in the astronaut played by Sandra Bullock.
Her journey into the darkness of space, lit mostly by the existence of life on earth, is, like Our Man's, incited by the global trajectories of commerce and technology that are, like Our Man's, beyond her control. At first, space is Edenic. Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski, played by Clooney, move freely within the proximity of their ship or space shuttle's safety. They note the silence, which the film renders into classical music. Space is an escape, until Houston informs them that satellite debris, caused by a Russian missile, is headed their way. And, like in All is Lost, disaster strikes in the form of the outside world's noise interrupting the inner peace and movements of individual lives. When the debris reaches the Explorer shuttle, Ryan experiences the violent trauma of being tethered to a rapidly spinning object, her ship in the form of a shuttle. In many ways, the violence she experiences while tied to the Explorer is a microcosm for life on earth. When she releases herself from the shuttle's throes, she also sets herself free from life on Earth. And, until Kowalski finds her, she is adrift, much like Redford's Our Man.
However, the journeys are not identical. While Our Man is driven by a desire to reconnect, Ryan seems satisfied with disconnect. But her isolation, and the audience's concern that the next hour might actually consist of watching her float both helplessly and aimlessly through space, comes to an end when Kowalski reaches her by way of jet pack. He then ties her to him and begins leading her on the only path that can ultimately bring her back to the land of the living, Planet Earth.
Ryan Stone's journey in Gravity, while taking place in the vacuum of space, is not a silent one. She is given more to say than a single "Fuck." Kowalski insists that she not only talk but that she talk about herself. Her compliance with his requests, which in some way is her surrendering to his maverick charm, leads her into a discussion of her past life on Earth; a life that essentially no longer exists because she is no longer a mother--her daughter has died in an accident that surmises the insignificance of human life in proportion with the universe's uncaring vastness. This accident, while smaller in physical size and global repercussions, looms as large as the Russian missile creating a tidal wave of debris. Kowalski insists that the past be spoken because he believes the past will motivate Ryan to keep moving. Little does he know, that the past is what motivated her into the comfortable escape of outer space in the first place. In other words, the past is not a motivation for her but a form of paralysis. In All is Lost, Our Man has no past, which marks his journey as a single drive, where Ryan Stone's journey is more complex because she must let go of the past and grab onto an unknown future.
I don't want to spoil the entirety of both these films. There are other comparisons to be made about what scenes in each film serve as visual metaphors for birth and rebirth--what material objects serve as wombs--and the multitude of disasters with which each of these sojourners is burdened. But doing so would avoid saying what needs to be said when making a comparison between these two films and has little to do with their thematic stylings and structure and everything to do with the genders of their protagonists. Our Man is obviously a man. And Ryan Stone is obviously a woman. This difference means something, even if an audience doesn't consciously make note of the difference.
Both these films rely on allegorical archetypes. They exist in the settings of the two films as well as in the situations into which disaster thrusts their protagonists. Gravity even alludes in several instances to roots in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The films are incredibly similar, and, to be honest, the only way to really find them all that different is to explore the subtle differences between what it means to hold on, let go, or to grab on. In the face of these nuances, saying that Robert Redford plays a male protagonist whereas Sandra Bullock plays a female one makes for a seemingly banal observation. But it's not.
Such a difference, in my opinion, marks an ability for Hollywood to produce films about human existence that are not gender specific as well as audiences' appetites to consume such films. After all, more people saw Gravity than All is Lost. Gravity received a great deal of attention for its technical strengths, its visual aesthetics and its sound editing, but I'm not sure whether or not it was fully appreciated for its strengths as a feminist vehicle. The most refreshing aspect of the film is that Ryan Stone is a woman without actively being a daughter, mother, girlfriend, wife, or nun. She is a human organism. And the closest I can think where this happens to this extent is in the Alien franchise's character Ripley, but the Alien franchise appropriates Ripley's womb as a plot device. In Gravity, the only time Ryan's body becomes an object is when it is positioned as a fetus in utero, or, rather, as a life transformed. The visual is beautifully stunning, not because Ryan is a woman, but because hope is eternal. Now, if only that same hope, could be brought down from the confines of outer space and set here on Earth.
Bryan Harvey can be followed on Twitter @LawnChairBoys.