by Herbert H. Stein
In an Ernie Kovacs skit, a boy sends in a question to Kovacs’s eccentric answer man asking why people in South America, at the bottom of the world, don’t fall off. Kovacs’s answer: “Billy, people are falling off all the time.”
My daughter told me that when she went to see the film, Gravity, within a few minutes she was deeply regretting that she’d chosen to see it in 3 D because she was feeling overwhelmed by a fear of heights and of falling. I didn’t have to ask her at what point that was, because it obviously was at one of the opening scenes in which we are looking down from open space at a large Earth.
For me, the sense of being out in space was also frightening, but in an exciting way, much like you might experience an amusement park ride. The sense of fear was immediate, but tempered somewhat by my knowing that unlike the astronauts in the film I was in no real personal danger. I was sitting safely in a movie theater in normal gravity. And yet …
The excitement of floating in space added an element of thrill which carried me to the point of involvement in the plot of survival. The strange sensation of floating in space gave Gravity an odd quality that we wouldn’t usually get from a film. However, I did not give the slightest thought to using Gravity to demon- strate any psychoanalytic concepts.
Several weeks after seeing the film, I heard about someone with a memory of wandering away as a small child, searching for her parents and getting lost. The memory carried feelings of being both frightened at suddenly being alone and chastened at having wandered on her own, a complex issue. Listening to it, I had the unbidden thought, “It’s like Gravity,” with the ambient fear of floating away on one’s own, away from all contact and protection, like the child in the memory.
One of the miracles of art is its ability to evoke emotions and even sensations that have been repressed or dormant, at times from a much earlier time in our lives. Here is a film that gives us the visceral sensation of floating in space, aware that at any moment we could drift, losing all contact with Earth and with other people. It did, indeed, seem to mimic the emotional sensation of being lost as a small child, out of reach of any known adult, with possibly no hope of being found. With that in mind, I decided to re-visit the film.
Before we enter the film, itself, we see written large across the screen: “AT 600 KM ABOVE PLANET EARTH THE TEMPERATURE FLUC- TUATES BETWEEN +258 AND -148 DEGREES FAHRENHEIT. THERE IS NOTHING TO CARRY SOUND. NO AIR PRESSURE. NO OXYGEN. LIFE IN SPACE IS IMPOSSIBLE.”
If this was designed to create an atmosphere of anxiety, it probably succeeds, but is certain- ly unnecessary. Immediately, we are looking down at a section of the Earth which takes up our entire visual field. We soon see the two astronauts, Kowalski and Stone, small figures with the background of the Earth in one persepective, black space in another. Dr. Ryan Stone is tethered to a section of the shuttle, floating in space. Commander Matt Kowalski is untethered, floating in space. We will see that he has a jetpack for maneuvering.
It is really when we first see the small astro- nauts against the backdrop of a giant segment of Earth that we begin to feel giddy. Especially with 3D imagery, but even without it, the view- er can feel how small they are and how easily they could be lost in space.
As we watch the opening moments, in which the astronauts are going about their relatively routine business of space walking, she attempting to fix a part of the Hubble tele- scope, he just standing by, chit chatting and playing music, we are given just enough to understand their relative positions. Kowalski is calm, an old hand at this. We are told that he is only 75 hours short of the record for total time spent in “space walks.” Ryan Stone is a medical engineer, not a trained astronaut, on her first mission in space after six months of training for this mission.
I had not noticed it particularly the first time around, but very near the beginning of the film, Kowalski tells a story with a theme quite close to the issues of loss and attachment that I was now pursuing.
“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.”
Mission control responds, “Please expand.”
“Okay, let me tell you a story. It was ninety- six. I’d been up here for forty-two days. Every time I passed over Texas, I looked down know- ing that Mrs. Kowalski was looking up, thinking of me. Six weeks I’m blowing kisses at that woman. Then we land at Edwards and I find out that she’s run off with this lawyer. So, I packed my car, and I headed to …”
This is said lightly, a background accompani- ment to the overwhelming scene we are view- ing, but it is a tale of loss, a betrayal of love. Not long afterward, but after the traumatic event that sets the plot in motion, we hear a tale of loss from Ryan Stone that cannot be told or heard lightly.
“I had a daughter. She was four. She was at school playing tag. Slipped, hit her head, and that was it. Stupidest thing. I was driving when I got the call, so… ever since then, that’s what I do. I wake up, I go to work, and I just drive.”
After roughly 10 minutes of peaceful space- walk, trauma propels the film’s plot forward. We hear Mission Control in Houston, in a not
to worry type of message, that a Russian mis- sile has blown up one of their unused satellites, creating a mass of debris hurtling in orbit. Soon afterwards, Houston gives a more peremptory warning:
“Mission abort. Repeat. Mission abort. Initiate emergency disconnect from Hubble. Begin reentry procedure. ISS, initiate emer- gency evacuation.”
When Matt asks what has happened, he is told:
“Debris from the missile strike has caused a chain reaction, hitting other satellites and cre- ating new debris traveling faster than a high- speed bullet up towards your altitude. All copy.”
Within moments, the debris hits them, creat- ing chaos, cutting off communication with the Earth and destroying the Explorer spacecraft, leaving Matt Kowalski and Ryan Stone alone in space. It was around this point, that I began to see a further pattern related to theme attach- ment and fear of loss. As we watch, Ryan becomes detached from the structure she’d been working on and is spinning in space. I cannot convey the voice qualities from the fol- lowing dialogue, but keep in mind that Ryan sounds frightened, panicked and Matt is calm, but with a persistent urgency to his voice.
Ryan Stone is still connected to a robotic arm of the shuttle which breaks free and spins off, spinning her with it. We spin with her, while the following dialogue ensues. Kowalski’s voice is calm and firm throughout. Ryan is anxious, as is the viewer. We start with Matt Kowalski:
”Astronaut is off structure! Dr. Stone is off structure! Dr. Stone, detach! You must detach! If you don’t detach, that arm’s gonna carry you too far!”
“No! No! I can-“
“Listen to my voice! You need to focus!”
“I can’t! I can’t.”
“I’m losing visual of you. In a few seconds, I
won’t be able to track you. You need to detach!
I can’t see you anymore! Do it now!”
“Okay, I’m trying! I’m trying! I’m trying!” (Ryan detaches herself and flies off.) “Houston, I’ve lost visual of Dr. Stone.
Houston, I’ve lost visual of Dr. Stone.”
(Ryan Stone is spinning out of control.)
“Dr. Stone, do you copy? Repeat, do you
”Yes, yes, yes. I copy! I’m detached!”
“Give me your position.”
”I don’t know! I don’t know! I’m spinning! I
can’t — I can’t — !”
“Report your position.”
“GPS is down. I ca—It’s down, I can’t …” (She spins and flips.)
“Give me a visual.”
”I told you, nothing. I see nothing!”
“Do you have a visual of Explorer?”
“Do you have a visual of ISS?”
“You need to focus. Anything, use the sun
and the Earth, give me coordinates.”
”It’s so fast. I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” “Give me coordinates! Dr. Stone, do you
copy? Repeat, do you copy? Give me your posi- tion! Report your position. Give me a visual! Do you have a visual of Explorer? Do you have a visual of ISS? I need you to focus. Anything. Use the sun and the Earth, give me coordinates. Give me coordinates.”
(She continues spinning. Ryan glances about as she tries to calm down. The Explorer shuttle, a glowing light, is far off in the distance.)
”Kowalski? Kowalski, do you copy? Kowals— I have—have a vis—Kowalski, I have a visual. I have—have a visual of Explorer. With north at twelve o’clock and the shuttle is at the center of the dial. I can see— I can see the Chinese sta- tion. No—No, it’s the International Space Station. ISS is at— ISS is at seven o’clock.”
No wonder that I was reminded of this film while hearing a story of a lost little girl! The specific scene hadn’t registered at that time,
but the feeling of being small and lost and afraid of never finding my way back had to be indelible.
At this point, Matt tells Ryan to turn on her light so that he can spot her. She does this and he finally spots her and heads towards her using his jetpack. He crashes into her and they hold on tight. At this point he tethers her to him, then tells her he needs to push her away. She is terrified, repeating, “No, no, no ….” He tells her he will “nudge” her away and she repeats screaming “No, no …”
Finally he shows her that she is tethered to him. “Where you go, I go.”
As this scene further unfolded, I discovered, or perhaps “re-discovered,” another element of theme I was seeking.
He is in control, she is terrified, and as they move back to the shuttle, to find the entire crew dead, one man’s head virtually taken off, we begin to see the pattern. He is taking her to the best chance for survival and in the process, teaching her how to walk in space. On my sec- ond viewing, the analogy of parent and child was striking, and more particularly, a parent helping a frightened toddler to learn to walk, to learn to be more independent.
With the shuttle incapacitated, he takes her towards the International Space Station, where they hope to be able to use the Soyuz landing craft to get back to Earth. But when they get there, Matt sees that the only remaining Soyuz has deployed its parachute and is not viable for reentry. His new plan is to use it to go to the Chinese space station.
But he is out of fuel in his jetpack and can’t brake properly, they crash into the space sta- tion and he flies on. Ryan hits something and the tether snaps.
“The tether broke! I’m detached, I’m detached!
“Grab hold! Grab anything!”
As she is flying off the station, her leg gets tangled in the ropes from the parachute, holding her loosely to the station.
We are, of course watching this, our hearts
pounding as we experience the roller coaster ride and feel the fragility of attachment to the space station.
Finally, he flies close enough for her to attempt to catch him. She can’t grab his hand, but she is able to grab onto the section of teth- er line that is attached to him. She says,
“Got ya. You just… hold on and I’m gonna start pulling you in. I’m gonna start … “
“Ryan, listen. You have to let me go.”
“The ropes are too loose. I’m pulling you with
Indeed, he is being propelled by his momen- tum away from the Soyuz, held back only by the tether line that she is holding onto. She is precariously attached, loops of rope from the Soyuz’s parachute wrapping around her leg, keeping her attached to Soyuz.
Here we come to perhaps the most poignant moment of the film, and one with obvious sig- nificance in our parallel tale of attachment and autonomy.
Matt takes hold of the tether clip.
“No, no, no.”
“You have to let me go, or we both die.”
“I’m not letting you go! We’re fine!”
Despite her protestations, he unclips the tether from his suit, and as he holds it, before releasing it, he says, “You’re gonna make it Ryan!”
As a story of two astronauts, one recognizing that he can’t be saved, but that the other can, this is high drama and extraordinary courage. But as a story of parent and child, it takes on a new level of significance. The courage is still there, but it is now the courage of the parent who can let go and teaches the child to let go as well. When played out in life, this scenario is not usually a matter of life and death, and yet it probably often takes a quiet courage and
reserve on the part of the parent as well as a mix of feelings on the part of the child. That is true at the moment of walking, during the stage of “rapprochement,” in Mahler’s words, and in later stages of childhood of childhood and adolescence.
At this point, Matt starts to drift away, still talking with Ryan, still with the same calm voice, very much in control. Ryan crashes into the station and is able to hold onto a railing.
“Ryan, do you hear me? Do you copy?”
“My CO2 alarm went off. My CO2 alarm went off.”
“Look, you need to board the station. Do you see the airlock? Hey, Ryan, you copy? Look for the airlock. It’s above you, next to the Zarya module. You see it?”
“Yes. Yes, I see it. I see it.”
“All right, good. That’s where you want to go. Now you’re getting lightheaded, right?”
“That’s because you’re breathing CO2. You’re losing consciousness. You need to board the station.”
Holding on tight to the space station’s rail- ing, Ryan turns her body upside down and moves toward the station.
Matt says, “That second Soyuz is too dam- aged for re-entry, but it’s perfectly fine for a lit- tle Sunday drive.”
Ryan climbs upward.
“Look to the west. You see that dot in the dis-
tance? That’s a Chinese station.” “Yes.”
“You’re gonna take the Soyuz, and you’re gonna cruise over there. Chinese lifeboat is a Shenzhou.”
“I’ve never flown a Shenzhou.”
“It doesn’t matter. Its re-entry protocol is identical to the Soyuz.”
“You’ve never flown the Soyuz either?”
“Only a simulator.”
“Well, then you know.”
“But I crashed it.”
“It’s a simulator, that’s what it’s designed
“Every time. I crashed it every time.”
“You point the damn thing at Earth. It’s not
rocket science. And by this time tomorrow, you’re gonna be back in Lake Zurich with a hell of a story to tell. You copy? Ryan, you copy?”
She tells him that she’s going to get the Soyuz and find him. He tells her, “Ryan, you’ve gotta learn to let go.”
We go through another roller coaster ride as she opens the airlock door and has to hang on when it flies open. In fact, by the time she gets into the Soyuz craft, Kowalski is out of sight and not answering on the radio.
What is striking here is not only the paradigm of a parent and child involved in developing the child’s autonomy, but that it also provides, in Kowalski, a model for parental behavior. This is a “parent” who is secure in himself and focused on helping the child to both survive and to develop confidence in its own survival skills. His relaxed, yet focused style fits the pat- tern described elsewhere (Main, 2000) of par- ents who promote secure attachment in their children. Although the film’s limited plot clues suggest that he has detached from the world in what might seem some form of giving up, his actual interaction with Ryan suggests some- thing else, an ability to persevere on the one hand, and yet also accept with relative equa- nimity what he cannot overcome. This is, of course, an ideal, but we must remember that this is, of course, a movie.
The ultimate success of Kowalski’s “parent- ing” of Ryan Stone is demonstrated in a later sequence in the film. She has overcome more obstacles, including a fire that destroys the space station as she is separating from it and a parachute from the Soyuz, that she must detach from the space station in another space
walk with debris floating by, in order to get free of the station. Finally, she is securely seated in the Soyuz, ready to jet her way towards the Chinese station, only to find that the thrusters are out of fuel.
She issues a Mayday call on the radio and hears a dim message, in a foreign language, with dogs barking in the background. In a plea to no one who will understand her, she says,
“Oh, I’m gonna die, Aningaaq. I know, we’re all gonna die. Everybody knows that. But I’m gonna die today. Funny, that. You know, to know… But the thing is, it’s that I’m still scared. I’m really scared. Nobody will mourn for me, no one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you say a prayer for me? Or is it too late? I mean, I’d say one for myself, but I’ve never prayed in my life, so… Nobody ever taught me how. Nobody ever taught me how.”
She hears a baby crying.
“A baby. There’s a baby with you, huh? Is that a lullaby you’re singing? That’s so sweet. I used to sing to my baby. I hope I see her soon.”
At this point, giving up, she turns the dials to lower the oxygen in the cabin and begins to fade.
“That’s nice, Aningaaq. Keep singing, just like that. Sing me to sleep, and I’ll sleep. Keep singing. And sing, and sing.”
Suddenly, a light shines from outside and Matt Kowalski appears, in his space suit. He opens the hatch and gets into the cabin with her.
“Check your watch. Thirteen hours and eleven minutes. Call Anatoly and tell him he’s been bumped.” (He is referring to the space walk record.) “It’s a little gloomy in here, isn’t it?”
She starts to ask him how he got there. “Trust me, it’s a hell of a story.”
Now there is country music playing. He tells her he found a little extra battery power. He pulls a bottle of vodka out of somewhere and toasts Anatoly.
“All right. Let’s get out of here. The Chinese station’s about a hundred miles. Just a little Sunday drive.”
“Sure we can.”
“There’s no fuel, I tried everything.”
“Well, there’s always something we can do.” “I tried everything.”
“Did you try the soft landing jets?”
“Thery’re for landing.”
“Well, landing is launching. It’s the same
thing. Didn’t you learn about that in training?” “I never got to land the simulator. I told you
“But you know about it.”
“And I crashed it… every time. But this … “ “Listen, do you want to go back, or do you want to stay here? I get it; it’s nice up here. You can just shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights… and just close your eyes and tune out everybody. There’s nobody up here that can hurt you. It’s safe. I mean, what’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. Doesn’t get any rougher than that. But still, it’s a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. Sit back, enjoy the ride. You gotta plant both your feet on the ground and start livin’ life.”
“How did you get here?”
“I’m telling you. It’s a hell of a story. Hey, Ryan?”
“It’s time go home.”
Suddenly, as an alarm sounds, we see that
Kowalski is not there. Informed and re-ener- gized by her hallucination, Ryan prepares to descend to Earth. Just before beginning the descent, she sends out a call to Matt on the radio, asking him to give a message to her daughter.
Here is a “live” depiction of that last interme- diate stage between a parent/child interaction and complete incorporation of the parental attitudes and values. We get to “see,” perhaps “live through” vicariously, the proof that the parental figure has been incorporated into the child’s mind and self identity.
Having taken the reader this far, I will not deny you the final spoilers.
Of course, Ryan makes it through re-entry, her pod landing in water just off a deserted shore somewhere on Earth. When she opens the pod, it fills with water, forcing Ryan to free herself lest she drown. We experience, vicari- ously, but intensely, the delicate line between death and birth.
We see Ryan push herself above the water, struggle to the shore and then propel herself on to her feet, her first experience of gravity in a week, with a look of determination, triumph, and relief.
We are left somewhat drained and relieved, saddened by the loss of the parental figure, Matt Kowalski, and thrilled by Ryan’s victory, and his, as she slowly walks up the shore. And yet, I think we are also left with a touch of anx- iety at having come so close to the experiences of early attachment and loss, relieved at this success, but perhaps aware that Ernie Kovacs was right,
“There are people falling off all the time.”
Originally published in the PANY Bulletin, Spring, 2014