I recently watched Alfonso Cuarón’s film Gravity, which tells the story of a couple of astronauts who become trapped in Earth orbit. Space debris destroys their shuttle, along with satellites which allow communication with Earth. Now they have to try and survive. Part of this effort involves continuing to talk to Mission Control in Houston, as though messages are still getting through. The routine is to address each message to ‘Houston in the blind’.
“They can’t hear us,” says inexperienced astronaut Ryan Stone.
“We don’t know that,” replies veteran Matt Kowalski. “That’s why you keep talking. If someone is listening they just might save your life.”
Gravity is an interesting film on many levels, not least in what it has to say to writers. When you are a writer starting out, no one is listening. Maybe no one will ever respond. Somehow you have to keep talking to Houston in the blind as if they are there.
We see the value of this approach during a particularly dire moment later in the film. Kowalski has been lost, and Ryan, after reaching a badly damaged International Space Station, finds herself trapped in an escape capsule with no fuel. At this moment Kowalski seems to return. He opens the capsule door, sits beside Ryan and provides some relaxed encouragement. Kowalski is a hallucination, but by talking to someone who isn’t there, Ryan manages to sort out her thoughts and find a way forward. The mirage of the conversation gives actual help. There are religious parallels. Ryan had considered prayer before Kowalski’s hallucination arrived – and prayer is once again a manner of communication where you are talking to Houston in the blind. That type of message will never be answered, but some people continue to gain actual comfort from the act of assuming their call gets through.
Point of view is also interesting. Sometimes we are in Ryan’s helmet, seeing out of her eyes. Then with a subtle movement we move outside, to view her story as observers. We are both Ryan and her audience, with her when she calls for help, but also in the position of someone receiving that call.
Writers are trying to communicate. Initially they only do this with themselves, using writing as a way to sort out personal thoughts, as Ryan did talking to the hallucination of her fellow astronaut. But even an illusory audience can provide actual help, and might turn into a real audience. If the message keeps going out with enough conviction, then you might find that Houston in the blind is receiving – as Ryan discovers at the end of the film. In a damaged capsule she reaches Earth and hears Houston telling her that they are sending a rescue mission.
So, taking Matt Kowalski’s advice…
“Houston in the blind, this is mission specialist Martin Jones. Permission to share a blog post on the film Gravity, with reference to writing… copy that.”