By Siu-Lan Tan
Spoiler Alert: This article includes plot details from the film.
Watching Gravity as a professor who teaches child psychology, I could not help but see the developmental themes that resonate with this film. One of the luminous images that lingered with me long after the film ended is the scene in which Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is nestled in the safety of a spacecraft following a grueling battle for her life. She knows this battle is not yet over. In her serene weightless and suspended state, she slowly retracts her limbs into a resting position that brings to mind the image of a fetus in utero. Here director Alfonso Cuarón waits for a sustained pause, a fermata.
Later, when she is sitting at the controls of the Soyuz space capsule after a period of intense solitude, Ryan is overjoyed to hear the sound of a human voice transmitted over the speaker. It is a playful melodious male voice. The language is not one she understands. Nevertheless, she is transfixed by the voice, the one tether to the world she knows. Just as a young infant is completely engrossed in speech sounds directed to her, Ryan is mesmerized by all that is musical about a voice (prosody) — its melody, tempo, rhythm, phrasing, pauses — without comprehending its content (semantics).
Arbitary connections between sound and assigned meanings defy her. The first sound she attaches to is the howling of a dog in the background of the grainy audio, which she begins to repeat, just as an infant imitates animal sounds and noises with ease. Soothed, she resigns herself to a peaceful and (possibly final) sleep to the sound of what she surmises to be a lullaby, sung by the voice to a young infant.
From what I can recall from a single viewing (and readers are invited to confirm this) the lullaby is sung on repeated pitches that are about a fifth apart. Later, Ryan hums the same interval softly (almost inaudibly) as she prepares the capsule for its final descent to earth. Based on the laws of physics, the interval of a fifth is one of the most pure and consonant intervals that can be produced by two musical tones. Studies show that even as infants, we are drawn to the simple beauty of octaves and perfect fifths. Pythagoras referred to this kind of perfect consonance as ‘the music of the spheres’, ultimately giving Kepler insight into the movement of the planets.
At the end of the film, Ryan escapes the space capsule after it has landed in water and has started to sink, preparing to swim to the surface. A frog is seen swimming by. I am reminded of creatures that are better adapted to live in changing conditions than we are. The amphibious frog begins life as a tadpole with gills but takes in oxygen through both lungs and skin as it develops into a mature frog, allowing it to stay submerged for long periods or hibernate underwater. The human being also begins life submerged in a liquid environment and does not need lungs for survival in the womb. Yet the lungs (which begin to form just one month after conception) must be fully functional when deployed at birth. From that moment on, we will be entirely dependent on the ebb and flow of air to our lungs to live.
Ryan finally breaks the surface of the water for her first gasp of air. We are reminded that human life cannot thrive in the vast emptiness of space nor in the depths of the ocean, but only in the narrow margin, the small interval between sea and sky.
The last scene shows Ryan finally reaching the shores of a beach, lying face down at the water’s edge. Her time in a weightless environment has taken a toll on her muscles. Like the young infant passing through early motor milestones, she musters up enough strength to raise her head for a moment before her chin meets mud again. Gradually she raises her head up higher, her shoulders, and then her chest. Like the typical infant, whose upper body is many times stronger than the lower limbs, Ryan draws herself up to a crawling posture mainly by the strengths of her arms — legs collapsing beneath her until they are finally engaged. At last, Ryan is seen standing upright and taking her first steps on the beach, her stiff ankles giving her the gait of an unsteady toddler. And in the developmental progression of a single human being echoes the achievements of an entire species.
Siu-Lan Tan is an Associate Professor of Psychology at Kalamazoo College, where she has taught developmental psychology and psychology of music for 15 years. She is co-editor and co-author of the recently published 2013 book, The Psychology of Music in Multimedia. It is the first book to consolidate the research on the role of sound and music in film, television, video games, and computer interfaces. A version of this post also appears on Siu-Lan’s blog, What Shapes Film: Elements of the Cinematic Experience on Psychology Today. Read her previous OUPblog articles.