Views from Outer Space: ‘Gravity’ and ‘the Overview Effect’

Outer space is back on the silver screen, but has the view from ‘out there’ changed our outlook on life on Earth?

Opening last week in the US, Gravity, written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney has been hyped up for out-of this world cinematography aimed at giving viewers a suspenseful taste of weightlessness, breathtaking views of Earth from outer space, and above-average performances by Bullock and Clooney. It seems to present a fresh start on outer space for Hollywood, in the vein of Apollo 13, where rather than aliens and asteroids, the film is centered on the voyage, the phenomenon of humans venturing into the starry void, defying the impossibility of life in space. However, New York Times columnist A.O Scott says, “Much as “Gravity” revels in the giddy, scary thrill of weightlessness, it is, finally, about the longing to be pulled back down onto the crowded, watery sphere where life is tedious, complicated, sad and possible.”

What is it like to gaze upon the Earth, free-floating in empty space? In the 1970’s French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, influenced by Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, theorized the ‘gaze’ as the ‘object in the field of the visible.’ Basically, he is saying that it is through looking, objectifying and desiring what we see around us, and recognizing that we too are being objectified by the looks of others, that we construct our sense of self. In the outer space film, does the Earth in its entirety get transformed from the place we all call home, impossible to perceive at a glance, to the object of desire, a fetish for life as we know it, through which we construct our sense of humanity?

Surely seeing the Earth spinning wildly below is not the same in real life as it is in Hollywood. The Planetary Collective, a group of philosophers, researchers, and creatives focused on “the big questions our civilization and species are currently facing,” set out to discover just what it meant when man was first able to see the Earth from above. Their short film “Overview” talks to astronauts who have lived the experience of seeing Earth first hand, including Edgar Mitchell who was part of the lunar module team on Apollo 14, to find out what it was like and how it changed their lives upon coming home. In the film, philosopher Frank White explains this as “The Overview Effect,” which he describes as a shift in consciousness resulting from man first being able to contemplate Earth in its entirety. Check it out, the real shots of Earth are amazing. (Be advised, its about 20 minutes long, so bookmark if you must!)

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In 1948, English astronomer Fred Hoyle stated, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… A new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” In the gaze of those who have had the opportunity to see it from way out thereEarth, spinning below, with its colors and movement and dynamism – all its peoples, cultures, and beauty – becomes a transitional object, through which a part of the astronaut’s self, and humanity, is re-constructed. For you or me this transitional object was a blanket, or a cherished colored toy. But imagine if we all had this attachment to our planet… An “overview” of Earth allows us to conceive of it as a whole, a unity in the vastness of space. Years after the first time scientists at NASA saw the Earth from the lunar module, however, the countless screen encounters audiences have had with the Earth’s image seem to have done little for our understanding of the planet, and our place in the universe.

Internationally and nationally, we don’t seem to have internalized the image of Earth drifting about its orbit, encapsulating all of us, as real. War and inequality wage on. Recently, US government furloughs have stopped NASA, the agency that first brought us this powerful image, dead in its tracks ( is shut down, too), temporarily laying off nearly all of its employees, except those responsible for our mission at the ISS. Will we need to send world political and business leaders to space to see Earth with their own eyes to make them understand?

Most of us will never get the chance to go. It seems that for now, Hollywood has sent Sandra Bullock for us. Well… Close enough. Thanks Sandra.


Check out the Planetary Collective’s Kickstarter-funded feature film project Continuum here.

2 thoughts on “Views from Outer Space: ‘Gravity’ and ‘the Overview Effect’

  1. Pingback: Jean-Pierre Jeunet on Filmmaking, Visualizing the American West | signs of seeing

  2. I am glad you brought up the overview effect and mentioned the film Gravity. I am not sure if i was preconditioned since I had read about the Overview Effect a few months prior to sitting for the movie Gravity. Apart from all the action, and mediocrity of dialogues, i couldn’t help but feel that the director had a conscious motive or atleast an awareness of this overview effect. Since i could feel the message being subtly explored in the narrative and in the images from time to time.

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