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Gravity: A Film of Rebirth
Letting go of Matt
Quite the emotional scene as Matt detaches from Stone, allowing her character to develop and ultimately survive. Stone realizes that she must now find a will to live, and a way back to earth. Symbolic of letting the lead male character go in favor of a female lead.
Obvious Metaphors and Blatant Symbols
Considered an amazing film for its effects, and visual splendor, many regard this film as the best film to come out of 2013. Some however, saw it as another good but somewhat forgettable movie. Although Alfonso Cuaron himself has explained the numerous symbols of rebirth and self discovery in it, there are people who thought it was too obvious a metaphor, or they simply didn't get the relevance. As with most films, a lot is open to interpretation. So whether or not you got the hints (quite blatant ones at that) there's more to this rebirth than simply a film character finding her way back to earth.
The film opens in space, where we are quickly introduced to Ryan Stone, a female Astronaut, and Matt Kuwolski, an obviously happy-go-lucky type character, who sits in a floating chair admiring the view of earth. His character is directly juxtaposed with Stones, as she is securely attached to the spacecraft she is fixing, hinting at her 'just here to get he job done' attitude. Once an asteroid field comes into the picture, chaos ensues. Stone, still attached to the now crumbling spaceraft, is told my Matt to detach. This isn't a simple question though, detaching form the ship would mean imminent death as she would and does float further and further from earth in an uncontrollable fashion (similar to how she feels of her own life, not in control and helpless). Matt saves her however, by grabbing the lead still stuck to her suit portraying his complete control of the situation and himself.
On their little journey floating high around earth trying to get to another space station, they get to talking about what's waiting for them on Earth. Its here we learn that Stone has no family waiting for her, she had a daughter who was killed. This explains a lot about her character and her need to be attached to her work (or symbolically other people as she attached to Matt quite literally).
Soon after, more asteroids hit, and this time its Matt's turn to detach from Stone. They both know this will mean the will die eventually floating around in outer space alone and silent. For Matt that's not a problem, its his choice, he's controlling it, and he knows it will give her a chance to get back to earth and face the fact that you have to keep on living even when the worst things imaginable have happened. He teaches her that sometimes its ok to let go (Stone need to let go of the guilt over her daughter, she feels that enjoying life and everything it has to offer is a betrayal). He says "You have to learn to let go", and he detaches himself from her.
So we can see some of the themes coming to play already, however, it isn't until she finally gets to the ISS, strips off her suit and curls up that as an audience we get to understand how she feels, like and infant, helpless and alone, unsure of what to do. There's nobody telling her how she can make it back safely to earth. She's alone.
Symbols of Hope
Rebirth of the Strong Female Character
So with the obvious ones out of the way, there's much more to see in gravity other than signs of rebirth. We know once she gets to ISS she is alone and just beginning her journey with no assistance. These are strong themes, as most movies of this genre, have pigeon holed women to the point where they are usually helpless, sidekicks. Most sci-fi films depict men in the most masculine fashion, shooting everything up, needing to be stabbed fifteen times before they fall to their knee's only to get some mysterious burst of energy where they end up killing everything in sight and saving the day. In said films, the roles of women are the opposite, they are there to highlight the masculinity of the men, to validate the strength of the male characters by sticking them beside women who are for lack of better examples, simply weak, useless and sexualized.
Cuaron even had to defend his choice of a female lead as many were unhappy that a consistently male genre would be portrayed in a female way. When considered beside the likes of 'Alien' though, a masterpiece of cinema ahead of its time by decades, 'Gravity' does a brilliant job of rebirthing these gender roles.
Ellen Ripley, a strong, complex women, who took on an Alien race without the help of men, gave birth to an Alien child only to kill it, threw the weak female character into the void of outer space along with her alien child. In fact both Ripley and Stone have many similarities. Both had children on earth. Ripley who wanted to get back to earth to see her daughter, would actually never get that chance as the films unfolded and she ended up being cloned. Stone on the other hand will never see her daughter because she died before Stones journey to space.
Both have short hair, widely considered masculine, yet they exude a feminine essence, since both are mothers. Stone even wears the iconic tee-shirt and underwear outfit that Ripley stormed on our screens with in 1979. Although its the typical 'sexy' outfit shown in many films, Ripley wore it not as a woman, but as a professional, all the astronauts wore their underwear at some points in the film. Similarly, Stone strips to this outfit after reaching a space station, and wears it in a way that doesn't sexualize her character in the least. The sexual possibilities of having female leads in Sci-Fi films are not exploited in either film, yes they are women, but they are more than that.
Both need only themselves (after Matt initially helps Stone) to get out of their predicaments. Its up to Stone to remember what she learned in her training, even attempting to read Russian instructions, successfully I might add, in order to get back to earth.
The point of this all of course is that there's a 3 decade space between Alien and Gravity. Ripley came out as the kick ass female lead role in 79, and there simply hasn't been many since.
So Cuaron chose Stone as the lead, using a man's name to further explain the stubbornness of men in life and the film industry, as Matt says to Stone "What kind of a name is Ryan for a girl anyway?" to which she replies "My Father wanted a boy". In fact he wanted one so bad that when his daughter was born, he gave her a boys name so that she would always be aware of her place within the family.
The fat that Matt Dies in the beginning of the film further solidifies the fact that this is a women's film, not in the sense that it's a chick flick in a space suit, but in the sense that its entirely based on a woman in a man's world, fulfilling a male role. We are even given glimpses of her gaze, the female gaze, as we are shown certain shots through her helmet.
When we do see strong women who define themselves, they typically are portrayed as tough, ass-kicking or feisty women but those stereotypes shouldn't be the only kind of female protagonists we see. Instead, Cuaron gave us character that is strong, but also has doubts and worries. When we see from inside her helmet we hear her heavy, scared breathing. She's not the emotionless female lead we are used to seeing on screen. In Gravity we witness Stone’s transformation from a woman consumed by grief and despair from the loss of her daughter, drifting along and attempting suicide (when she thinks there's no way back to earth), into a survivor who yearns and fights to survive.
He's not even there, so its her subconscious telling her what to do...
The End (of Weak Women)
The final scene's of Gravity are considered the most filled with metaphors of rebirthing. As she hurtles towards earth in a fire engulfed cocoon, she lands in an ocean of water. Escaping the cocoon, holding her breath she swims to the top and onto the land. We see her crawl on all fours onto the dry ground, then hunched over, battling the weight of gravity. She slowly gets on two legs and walks.
This is a scene that in one simple shot shows the complete history of evolution, we came form the sea on all fours, only to learn to walk on two. She has only herself to thank for getting back onto land, where she's not floating weightlessly in soundless motion. She fights to get on two feet. She needs no assistance. She's grounded and connected with earth, thus connected with life.
With the character of Ryan Stone safely returning to earth, a new woman, and Ripley before her succeeding in equally horrifying situations, women have more options than being the simple minded, damsel or the hard-ass emotionless women of films. The overall message of the film being that female characters don't need balls to do what men have been doing in film since its inception. Hopefully it wont take another 30 years for another female character of this complexity to make it onto our screens.