Make Life a Mythic Journey
The moon flight as an outward journey was outward into ourselves.
—Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
During the past two weeks, I’ve seen the hit movie of this fall, “Gravity,” twice. The second time, it was with members of my workshop, “Think Jung,” to assess my hypothesis that the movie is really a rare, feminine example of what Joseph Campbell called “The Hero’s Journey” in his classic book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. According to Campbell, it is perhaps the most famous archetypal myth that appears to be so universal to mankind that he called it, borrowing from James Joyce, the “monomyth.” The story dates from The Odyssey to Lord of the Rings and more recently to movies like “Star Wars” and “Gravity.”
Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer’s Journey (p. 9), has called this “a beautiful design, a set of principles that govern the conduct of life and the world of storytelling the way physics and chemistry govern the physical world.” He describes how the Hero’s Journey has been adapted to motion picture screenplays like “Gravity.” The mythic journey contains, like most modern healing programs, twelve steps or stages.
The first stage in the journey is called the “Ordinary World.” “Gravity” begins in the silence of space with the earth viewed, we are informed in a written “factoid,” from almost 400 miles. Other facts tell us how hostile the environment is with extreme temperatures and no air. Slowly, a small object enters the frame from the lower right. We hear voices and soon see a space shuttle floating into view with three astronauts outside in space suits. In the middle of the screen, one of them is moving swiftly around using a jetpack. That is Mission Commander Matt Kowalski played by George Clooney. In the background another astronaut is doing some repairs in the shuttle bay area, and in the foreground, the Hubble Space Telescope has been docked and is undergoing repairs by Mission Specialist Ryan Stone, PhD, played by Sandra Bullock. It is her first mission, and it is she, as the innocent, unschooled astronaut who, as in all myths, will be the hero or, in this case, heroine.
It is an ordinary space mission until Commander Kowalski receives a message from Houston informing him that a Russian missile has destroyed a satellite causing a debris field to form. At first, he’s told not to worry since they’re in a higher orbit, but moments later he hears an urgent message telling him to immediately abort the mission as the debris has spread into his orbit, is moving at very high-speed, and all communication may soon fail due to the destruction of other communication satellites impacted by the shrapnel-like debris.
Thus, we enter the second stage, “The Call to Adventure.” Commander Kowalski immediately changes from the joking, joyrider Texas cowboy into a serious veteran astronaut, and orders Dr. Ryan, who is struggling to complete the Hubble repair, to stop and return at once to the shuttle. Just moments earlier, they were pleasantly chatting about the wonders of space: He was awed by the vistas of earth; she welcoming “the silence.” When she had let a bolt escape and start to float away he had casually reached out to retrieve it. Now, she asks for a few moments more to complete fixing the defective panel. This is the third stage, “Refusal of the Call.”
At this moment, the debris comes bursting into view with disastrous consequences: the third astronaut is killed as a piece of debris much like a bullet shoots through the front of his helmet; the Hubble itself is hit and destroyed; the shuttle’s arm is detached and sent spinning off; and finally Ryan Stone is also sent spinning into space. The camera focuses in on her face as she hyperventilates and struggles to provide Commander Kowalski with a visual marker so that he can locate her. After a while she does, and Kowalski rescues her. At this point, we enter the fourth stage, “Meeting with the Mentor.” Kowalski will now be charged with guiding Ryan through the ordeal and returning safely to earth.
The first task for Kowalski and Ryan is to retrieve the body of the dead astronaut and then return to the space shuttle. This is the fifth stage called “Crossing of the Threshold.” Retrieving the body requires some effort as objects in motion tend to collide and bounce around in space—a prelude to later trials requiring entry to space stations. The two secure the body (complete with multiple gruesome close-ups of the destroyed face) and return to the shuttle, only to find it badly damaged and the crew dead. They now enter the next, sixth, stage involving “Tests, Allies, Enemies” or what Joseph Campbell called “The Road of Trials.” In this case, the road is to get to the International Space Station (ISS).
With his jetpack and Ryan securely attached to him, Kowalski is able to navigate to the ISS. He tries to calm Ryan whose oxygen is rapidly depleting as she continues hyperventilating by engaging in pleasant conversation. Here he learns that she is still grieving over the sudden death of her young daughter in a playground accident. This is the first hint that the real focus is not the surface “space odyssey,” but an inner journey to overcome grief and to be healed.
At this point, the two astronauts enter the seventh stage, “Approach to the Inmost Cave.” The “cave” is literally the inside of the ISS, which resembles the galleries in caves and mines. However, Kowalski and Ryan have trouble getting a handhold on the ISS. After bouncing off many of its surfaces, Ryan’s leg becomes entangled in one of the ropes from the deployed landing parachute of the Soyuz capsule docked at the ISS. Kowalski’s jetpack is out of fuel; Ryan is down to the oxygen in her space suit; and his momentum is pulling her out of the grasp of the restraining parachute line. Kowalski unhooks himself from Ryan against her pleas of protest. As he floats off he guides her to the airlock entry of the ISS and instructs her to take the damaged Soyuz to the nearby Chinese space station. Ryan manages to grab onto the ISS and pull herself up to the hatch, open it, and enter the station. She then proceeds to turn on the oxygen system inside the chamber, remove her space suit and then float in a fetal position with a cord hanging over her like an umbilical cord. She is starting to be reborn.
After Ryan emerges from the womb of the entry chamber, she enters the tube-like interior and finds the control system. There we see a second transformation, as she takes on the authoritative voice of Commander Kowalski when she unsuccessfully tries to make radio contact with him. She realizes that she’s now alone making a verbal note to “Houston in the blind” that she’s the sole survivor of the mission. She then enters the central, and most difficult, eighth stage of her journey, “The Ordeal.” As is typical of most myths, there are four hurdles or challenges to overcome.
The first is an electrical fire that rapidly ignites in sections of the station. Ryan grabs a fire extinguisher, but fails to put it out. The fire explodes and she barely manages to outrace it into the safety of the Soyuz capsule. There she faces her second challenge operating the capsule to undock it from the ISS and guide it to the Chinese station. She has told Kowalski that she always crashed the Soyuz in the simulator tests, but he reassured her by saying that’s just what happens in simulators. Ryan locates the operating manual and is able to undock Soyuz from the ISS, but cannot pull away as it’s entangled in the lines of the parachute. This leads to the third challenge: going outside Soyuz to remove the fittings fastening the parachute to Soyuz. Here again, we see the effects of the mentor as Ryan successfully retrieves the tool used to remove the bolts as it starts to float away.
As is always the case, the fourth, and last, major challenge is the most difficult. “Here the fortunes of the hero[ine] hit bottom in a direct confrontation with [her] greatest fear. [S]he faces the possibility of death” (Vogler, p. 15). For Ryan the challenge is to overcome the failure of the Soyuz main engine to work. She cannot get to the Chinese station and confronts her death while bemoaning the absence of any religious training or ceremony: “No one will pray for me. I don’t even know how to pray.” She decides to surrender to death and turns off the oxygen and falls into a semi-conscious state. At that point, she hears a rapping on the window, and soon the hatch opens and Kowalski enters. He turns on the lights and oxygen and engages her fears—the loss of her child and inability to solve the problem of operating the Soyuz. He reminds her that there are landing thrusters. At that moment she returns to consciousness and we realize the she’s had a vision and that Kowalski was not there.
This is the key psychological moment for the heroine that Joseph Campbell called the “Atonement with the Father” or the “at-one-ment with the father.” Both the psychological and the real—the unconscious and conscious—barriers are simultaneously overcome. This is at once a mystical, spiritual place embraced by awareness, as is so common to those who have suffered such a sudden traumatic loss. Ryan then describes her daughter to Kowalski so that he can deliver a message that her missing red shoe has been found. After a pause during which she apparently hears him reply, she concludes by saying, “Roger that.” Ryan is thus renewed through Kowalski’s gift of the inner masculine and can now survive her ordeal.
She has reached the ninth stage, “Reward (Seizing the Sword)” or “The Ultimate Boon” according to Campbell. She is the new woman who has made “an outward journey [that] was outward into [herself].” Ryan quickly finds the manual showing her how to trick the Soyuz into operating its landing thrusters and maneuvers it to the Chinese space station where she exits into space and using the fire extinguisher guides herself to the station and enters it. There she sees a statue of the Buddha, a symbol of her spiritual reincarnation.
This brings Ryan to the first of the final three stages that happen quickly. The tenth is “The Road Back.” Here Ryan has to operate the controls, which are in Chinese. It’s all a matter of chance, or perhaps feminine intuition, as she tries various combinations of buttons while chanting “eeeny-meeny-..” But, it all works and she survives re-entry and separation and landing in a lake. This brings us to the penultimate, eleventh stage of “Resurrection” where heroines, according to Vogler (p. 17), “had to be purified before they returned to their communities because they had…been to the realm of the dead [and] must be reborn and cleansed.” This cleansing occurs when Ryan opens the hatch and the capsule is flooded with water. She removes her spacesuit, exits the capsule, and swims to the surface. She has undergone a baptism and is reborn.
The last scene of “Gravity” takes us to the final, and twelfth, stage, the “Return with the Elixir.” In a primal, evolutionary moment, Ryan crawls out of the water on all fours clawing the sand and then somewhat unsteadily overcomes gravity to stand; a new woman has come ashore. She is spiritually healed and ready to bring a new, strong, caring, and whole feminine into the world.
Paul Marshall Wortman
Star Wars photo ©20th Century Fox
Gravity photos ©Warner Bros Pictures