“You say I’m something I’m not,
but I’m not what I seem.
Get my back off the wall.
If I could just make it stop.”
– Low, “Just Make It Stop”
We all go through hell. One thing goes wrong: an unpaid bill, a break-up, or a crucial piece of mail that never gets delivered. We get frustrated, but we keep our heads up. And then the next thing goes: you lose a friend, you’re chewed out at work, someone scrapes your car. You get angry, but you keep on going. And then the third, and the fourth, and fifth things go, until you can barely take it and something as simple as an extra grocery trip or a shattered glass has you cursing yourself, punching a wall, and saying, “I just can’t do this.” Each and every one of us has some version of this we’ve faced.
Hell is doing everything you can, working your hardest, and realizing your best just isn’t good enough. It’s disheartening, and if enough piles on, it breaks you. It makes you lose control, it makes you justify surrendering to the stress and pressure. It turns you into a different person than you thought you were.
Gravity is a survival story. It’s a single, 90-minute action sequence about astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) trying to find a way to survive a debris field that destroys their space shuttle.
The effect Gravity has can’t be fully described. It’s going to be different for different people. For some, it will be an exceptional action movie, but I suspect for most it will dig deeper. In Bullock’s performance, many will see themselves in those moments when they truly felt beaten down by the world.
That it happens in a real-time, 3-D, science-fiction extravaganza is unexpected. We are spoiled for great movies in the theater right now, and Gravity may be one of the greatest ever. The performances sit comfortably on that border between movie and real. Director Alfonso Cuaron, who’s given us Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Children of Men, uses long, constantly moving, unbroken takes. The opening shot alone lasts 17 minutes and contains as many life-or-death moments as a Die Hard film. The musical score is at times overwhelming; even the sound is precise. When you’re sitting in a theater, matching your breathing to Bullock’s, and reaching out to clutch your own hand when she grabs for the very last hold that can stop her from spinning out into space, you realize you’re experiencing a movie that takes over your senses in a way that’s entirely new.
I can’t remember rooting for a character so hard, not just wanting but needing Bullock’s Stone to make it through. It’s not because she’s special or heroic. She is certainly those things, but it’s because she responds so very much like the rest of us. Her impossible tasks may happen in space, but her hopelessness and frustration feel just like yours and mine.
We live in a moment in history when more people are being broken than ever before, when more face that unbearable moment of climbing back to their feet for a fourth, fifth, sixth time in a row and can’t tell whether it’s really worth the effort. It happens to loved ones, to strangers, to the elderly who have tried their entire lives and to the young who haven’t gotten the opportunity. These last two weeks, in a government shutdown, it’s happened to our country itself. Ernest Hemingway, perhaps the greatest American writer, once wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially.”
If you take one thing from Gravity, it’s that we all go through hell. Life is too often a contest to see whether we get stronger or keep on breaking. And if you have the heart to root for Sandra Bullock here, which should be easy, then have the courage to root for the people around you when they’re breaking, too. You’ll be surprised – it’s just as easy.