“Gravity,” “Captain Phillips,” and being trapped off the grid

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Spoilers abound in this article, not surprisingly.

“I get it.” astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) says to astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) at one point during “Gravity.” “It’s nice up here.” Earlier in the film, before everything goes to hell, Kowalski asks Stone what she likes best about outer space, and she says, “The silence. I could get used to that.”

A.O. Scott has an excellent piece in Sunday’s New York Times on the theme of survival in fall movies (“Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and the forthcoming “All Is Lost”), tales of danger in which an ordinary person is pitted against seemingly overwhelming peril. “They are the disaster movies of the moment,” he writes.

Just to expand on that, what struck me about “Gravity” and “Captain Phillips” (and seems to be even more pronounced in “All is Lost,” although I haven’t seen it) is how the films use isolation and disconnectedness as a device for suspense. That’s something that truly makes them “disaster movies of the moment,” in an era where we’re all seemingly entangled with each other’s lives on Facebook and Twitter.

These heroes have really wandered off the grid, which is usually such a desired place to be, especially in an America which prides itself on rugged individualism and self-reliance. To shut off your phone is an act almost of defiance, cutting the invisible cord to your boss or your friends or your life. Stone has gone through immense personal trauma, and so for her the ability to disconnect from her life, be it aimless driving on earth or floating in space, is a relief, however temporary. And one assumes Redford’s unnamed character in “All is Lost” has a lot of wealth back home to be able to afford (both financially and mentally) the ability to sail away from it all, unreachable.

But with freedom comes vulnerability. The iconic image in all three films is a small figure against a vast expanse (the “pitiless void” of Scott’s headline). When Redford’s boat is damaged and his SOS cries prove fruitless, he has only himself and his wits to guide him home. Stone’s plight in outer space, communicating vainly “in the blind” (great phrase) for help, is a perfect mirror of that.

Even “Captain Phillips” plays on the same themes of isolation, even if Phillips (Tom Hanks) is never physically alone. That massive container ship looks awfully vulnerable floating in the Indian Ocean, a long ways from help, the hijack hotline workers on the other end of the line only able to offer boilerplate guidance as the pirates’ skiffs draw closer. And when Phillips is crammed into an orange lifeboat with the four hijackers, the vessel looking like a bath toy bobbing in the night waves, he seems truly alone and helpless.

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“Gravity” and “Captain Phillips” end with, in ways, very different victories — Stone entirely takes matters in her own hands to save her life (although the welcome voice of Ed Harris at Mission Control returning to the air makes her salvation complete). Phillips, meanwhile, is a helpless victim, utterly reliant on a few crack Navy SEAL shots to save him. Stone ends the film literally on her own two feet, the camera gazing up at her newfound confidence and renewed passion for life. Phillips is emotionally numb, almost unable to stand or to speak (Hanks, so glib on talk shows, is a revelation in these near inarticulate moments), entirely dependent on the Navy officers around him.

The films all play on both our desires and our fears of disconnecting, going out beyond where anyone can reach us. But eventually, the films tell us, to survive we have to come back.

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