10/07/2013 02:08 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2013

Hit and Myth: Gravity

Creation myth is a key focus of Gravity, a beautiful new film written by Alfonso Cuarón and Jonas Cuarón, directed by Alfonso Cuarón. A creation myth is a story that explains the genesis of a world, a beginning, a birth. The Cosmic Egg, which explains the shape of the universe is one example of a creation myth motif found in different traditions worldwide.

Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a bio-medical engineer on her first space mission; longtime astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is in charge of the project. But due to a sudden debris shower caused by a Russian anti-satellite test, the mission goes terribly wrong.

From the opening moments of the film, Earth is present as a character and as a backdrop, above or below the action, and finally, as a place of ultimate spiritual destiny. Gaia, the personification of Earth in Greek mythology, is implied as a key presence. Stone, eventually alone and stranded in space, must find her way home to Mother Earth.

The acclaimed thirteen-minute opening, with its continuous movement, establishes space as a place of silence, a characteristic that Stone says she enjoys. Her longing for solitude, as she continues to grieve for her dead daughter, is one of the reasons Stone wants to work in space. Is she closer to her daughter's spirit up here? As the film progresses, the title Gravity begins to resonate as related to a tomb, a grave--not just weightlessness--especially as others die on the ill-fated mission.

Stone makes her way, at first with Kowalski, to the evacuated International Space Station. There, she finds that the only remaining Soyuz module has no parachute, and thus won't work for landing on Earth. From this point forward, Stone must find her way alone. With great athletic ability, she makes it into the ISS, and soon discovers that the Soyuz module, without a parachute, has no fuel either. The station catches fire. After escaping flames in one section, Stone realizes she must somehow reach the nearby Chinese station Tiangong as quickly as she can.

As the odds stack against her, Stone resigns herself to die. She has a vision of Kowalski, as encouraging mentor, who climbs into the Soyuz module and reminds her of a way to use the landing engines to get to Tiangong. Kowalski becomes a spirit guide in the scene, and Stone finds the inner fortitude to go on. Bullock and Clooney, who are both terrific throughout the movie, are especially effective here.

The film is in visual dialogue with Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey in many ways, such as: images related to a single human stranded alone in space, creation myth symbols of distant stars and galaxies, birthing motifs in the endings of both films. But Gravity differs from 2001 in two important ways: it features a female scientist-protagonist, with no computer-ally, such as HAL or even NASA's Mission Control (voiced by Ed Harris). In both films, technology fails humans, but in Gravity, technology is "wounded," unable to fully function after the initial debris disaster.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, writes of creation myths: "The imagery is necessarily physical and thus apparently of outer space. The inherent connotation is always, however, psychological and metaphysical, which is to say, of inner space" (31). In Gravity, the setting of space and Stone's amazing attempt to make it back from space to the gardens of Earth illustrate her own spiritual journey to healing.

In his book Flying Saucers, C.G. Jung writes that for the modern psyche, spaceships represent "self": "They are impressive manifestations of totality, whose simple round form portrays the archetype of the self" (21). Stone is in three different "ships" in Gravity which reflect the progression of her psychic journey: a big abandoned space station on fire, to a smaller foreign station also abandoned, to a final tiny pod.

But it's the pod, shaped like a seed, that eventually becomes the vehicle for the splashiest birth motif in the film, as Stone lands in water, enacting another creation myth motif in the film's thrilling climax.