I don’t know about you, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around the fact that one day we are all going to stop existing. When I think about being dead, I picture myself slightly conscious and utterly bored for all eternity. Even writing about it now, I can feel the spindly fingers of existential dread wrapping themselves around my throat. When this happens, I usually just stop thinking about it, preferring to live with the illusion that I am somehow exempt from the laws of the universe.
Gravity, the new Alfonso Cuarón movie, dwells in this territory. In a terrifying early scene (they give it away in the previews), Dr. Ryan Stone is installing a piece of equipment when she becomes untethered from her station and is sent hurling through space. As she spins out of control, the camera zooms out and we see her tiny figure against the vast blackness. Moments ago, she was brown eyed and demure as she batted off George Clooney’s flirtations. Now she’s a meaningless fleck of dust, no match for the cosmos.
As far as plot goes, Gravity is predictable and straightforward: throughout the rest of Ryan’s adventure in space, we can feel the pull toward a happy ending. But at the same time, the possibility of a happy ending is destroyed barely ten minutes in. Seeing Ryan almost subsumed into the emptiness is an uncomfortable reminder of her insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things. Even if she’s standing on firm ground, she’ll never forget the fact that she’s hurling uncontrollably toward death. And so are we.
I once read an interview with Woody Allen where he said, “One must have one’s delusions to live. If one looks at life too directly, it becomes unbearable to live.” Gravity serves us reality and denial on the same spoon. It’s a Hollywood sci-fi flick with enough action to distract from the constant background terror of knowing that we, like Ryan, are one day going to die. Like so much entertainment, it’s a diversion from the knowledge that we will lose everything that is dear to us. But even as Gravity offers an escape, it also delivers, in the form of Ryan’s vulnerable body spinning through space, a reminder of precisely that loss. The gravity of Gravity is this pull between palliative and pinprick, opiate and omen.
Just before seeing Gravity, I had been talking about 40 Days of Dating. I found the project kind of confounding, but I couldn’t articulate why. Strangely enough, Gravity provided the answer. Death is The Big Undeniable that we can’t help but deny, but there are plenty of other, smaller tragedies that we meet with mild self-delusion. Dating is one of them.
40 Days of Dating is a project created by Tim and Jessica, two young Brooklynites who’d been friends for years but never dated. They wanted to confront the issues that had prevented their romantic success; she tended to get attached, while he was a self-proclaimed commitment-phobe. So they decide to play at being a couple for forty days. The rules of their experiment included seeing each other every day, keeping separate blogs of their thoughts, and meeting weekly with a therapist. When the forty days were up, they decided whether they want to become a ‘real’ couple (spoiler: they don’t).
The experiment purportedly tests whether it’s possible to grow intimacy in a petri dish. But it doesn’t answer that question so much as it raises another: what’s the difference between fake dating and real dating? Not much, it turns out.
Over the course of the forty days, Tim and Jessica start to look a lot like a couple. They have sex. They bicker. They write cute love notes. But in the end, the pressure gets to both of them. He’s enjoying the moment enough that he’d rather not think about the future. She’s enjoying the moment enough that she can’t stop thinking about it. He senses her anxiety, and resents it. She senses his resentment, and becomes even more anxious.
You don’t need to be part of a dating experiment to experience this kind of vicious cycle—real dating has enough of it already. So why did they bother with the experiment at all? Why not just date? Perhaps they wanted to be different than they were before, different from everyone else who’s failing at dating. You can’t blame them for wanting to escape, but of course, they failed.
There’s no experiment that could rescue them from who they were, just like there’s no Hollywood movie that could rescue us from our mortality for more than the two hours it makes us forget about it. We may feel safe in the theater, sipping a soda and holding hands with our sweethearts, but we’re as doomed as Ryan was spinning through space. Movies might feel like an escape from life, but they’re just more life, happening right before our eyes. 40 Days might have felt like an escape from dating, but it was just more dating. We can’t escape, because there is nowhere to escape to; this is all there is.
That sounds pretty bleak, but maybe it doesn’t have to be. After all, Ryan stares these limits in the face and decides she still wants to survive. And who knows—maybe if Tim and Jessica had stared dating in the face they would have survived too (but then they wouldn't have Internet fame and a movie contract).