A medical engineer on her first space mission attempts to survive in the wake of a series of catastrophic events that threaten her life.
Writer(s): Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Production Co.(s): Warner Bros. , Esperanto Filmoj, Heyday Films
The Story on the Screen
When we first meet Dr. Ryan Stone, the main character of the film Gravity, she is spacewalking in orbit 600 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, working to install a communications upgrade on the Hubble space telescope, which is temporarily attached to the space shuttle Explorer. She is accompanied on her excursion (but not in her installation efforts) by veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, who is on his final space mission and using a jet pack to wander around the shuttle/telescope assembly and increase his total spacewalk time—and by mission specialist Shariff, who is at work in the shuttle bay.
Not long after we meet Ryan and her colleagues, they receive a dire warning from NASA Mission Control in Houston that the exploded remains of an intentionally destroyed Russian satellite have triggered a cascading series of satellite destruction that has created a fast-moving debris field—which threatens their safety.
The call to abort the mission comes too late, however, and before they can reenter the shuttle, the debris field hits with devastating effects, punching through the shuttle and severing the retrieval arm to which Ryan is attached. And when she unstraps herself from the arm, she is sent spinning helplessly away into space.
Dr. Ryan Stone and her colleagues receive a dire warning from NASA Mission Control—too late. Thus begins her harrowing struggle to stay alive.
Thus begins her harrowing struggle to stay alive in the cold, unforgiving vacuum of space—a struggle aided partly by Matt but most of which she is forced to manage on her own. And the small oases of respite that she finds in each phase of her journey prove ephemeral at best, forcing her into the next phase and the next as she strives to achieve the ultimate salvation of a safe return to Earth.
Some of her crises are due to a scarcity of resources like breathable air, others arise from the difficulties of operating in zero gravity, and still others are caused by the debris field itself, which strikes with menacing regularity every hour and a half.
Behind the Scenes
The primary clue to Ryan's type of intent may be found by means of the "type of intent thought experiment" described in Chapter 6 of Discovering the Soul of Your Story. Specifically, the treasure that Ryan seeks in the wake of the inciting incident, when the debris field strikes the first time, is nothing less than the security of refuge on the surface of the Earth, where she is out of harms way. And if she were granted that treasure magically (by the Story God) at any point, the story would be stopped in its tracks, and she would feel relieved.
The sense of relief at the magical granting of a treasure is the sign of a keep character who is struggling to fend off a threat to her possession of that treasure. In this case, Ryan's treasure is her life itself, which will remain under constant threat unless she finds herself safely on Earth.
The sense of relieve at the magical granting of Ryan's treasure is a sign that she is a keep character.
It is tempting to think of Ryan as a regain character, because she is attempting to return to Earth, but in this case the return simply serves the higher purpose of ending the threat to her life. Also, in stories that involve regain characters, the inciting incident tends to be the event that causes a displacement in space or time (see Back to the Future), not one that introduces an immediate threat, as it does in Gravity.
And in this story, the keep aspect of Ryan's external journey is nicely aligned with her inner nature as someone who keeps her feelings to her self—having retreated from life after the death of her young daughter years before.
Ryan's external journey is nicely aligned with her inner nature as a keep character.
As with nearly any story that involves the attempt to survive against forces that threaten one's existence, the issue in Gravity has to do with the attempt at survival itself. Unlike Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games however, who fights against forces that seek to control her, Ryan's opponent is space itself and its inhospitable nature to human life.
It is reasonable, then, to express the proposition for Gravity as:
- One should attempt to survive (keep alive) in the face of natural threats to her life, because success in the attempt will preserve the possibility of future happiness.
In the end, Ryan does survive the perils of her ordeal and stands safely on the shore of a lake in which she touches down, exultant to have defeated the forces of Nature that would have killed her. And because we-the-audience like her and sympathize with her struggle, Gravity checks in very firmly as a succeed/pleased story.
Although she suffers loss during her journey, it is not unreasonable to classify the ending as happy.
And although she suffers the loss of compatriots along the way (collateral damages), she also confronts and defeats a significant inner demon—which is a grand consolation for her efforts. Therefore, it is not unreasonable to classify the ending as happy.
For More Information
For details regarding the concepts and terms used in this analysis, refer to the Discovering the Soul of Your Story overview video and the glossary. For more story analyses like this, visit the Story Analyses page (or use the search tools in the sidebar).