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The entire movie is a giant metaphor for the line between “powerlessness,” “empowerment,” and the inner conflict surrounding it

This plays partially on the “Kowalski” was always an hallucination.

The biggest threat throughout the whole story isn’t suffocation, or getting hit by debris. The biggest threat is losing control of the situation.

Kowalski represents empowerment up to a certain point, while Ryan represents self doubt. This persists until Kowalski’s sacrifice, where Ryan hits her lowest point within the story.

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How does Kowalski die? Ryan loses what little confidence she has remaining while frantically looking for easy answers, only to get disappointed. Her ‘rebirth’ and merging with Kowalski happens during the ‘dream sequence.’ When Ryan turns her oxygen low, she’s effectively giving up. By this point she has nothing left to lose, even hope. Only when she is fully prepared to lose absolutely everything, does Kowalski come back, in a symbolic removing of the shields between Ryan and the harsh vacuum of space. Despite her fear, the vacuum doesn’t harm her (granted its a dream sequence).

Here, she embraces the cause of her fears and learns to confront it; bringing her two halves together and resolving her internal conflict. From the viewer’s perspective, it looks like Kowalski’s last appearance, but really, for the rest of the story, Ryan IS Kowalksi: a truly competent astronaut who has all the answers she needs to achieve her goals. This is further reinforced during her re-entry scene, where she begins a crazy story, much like Kowalski did at the beginning.

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Explaining what really happened if Ryan and Kowalski are the same person:-At the beginning, Ryan wears the jet pack and works on the Hubble part

-When she’s flying out of control, she can’t use her jet pack until detaching herself from the arm.

-When Kowalski makes his sacrifice, this is more of a symbolic representation, as Ryan realizes her pack is empty and needs to make due with whatever is in the space station.

-From the scene where Ryan comes to her senses, until the end of the movie is all real.

The whole incident can be blamed on a single hacker.
The debris field is as big as it because of a chain reaction that started with a missile strike on a spy satellite. Mission Control states that both the missile strike and the target satellite were Russian. Kowalski speculates that the satellite was shot down because it went rogue. It's possible that the reason the satellite got shot was because someone hacked it. Its owners couldn't control what it was doing, they took action to disable it the only way they could. All this death, decades of work, and trillions of dollars in damage was started inadvertently by some Playful Hacker just because Everything Is Online.

The film is set in 2018, but in an Alternate Universe.
In two instances, the astronauts state that the Space Shuttle Explorer's mission designation was STS-157. In real life, the final space shuttle mission was STS-135, which was launched in 2011. This film is set in an alternate universe where NASA never ended the shuttle program, and there have been 22 additional shuttle launches. If you assume NASA kept up its launch rate of approximately 3 missions per year, you can deduce that STS-157 flew approximately 7 years after STS-135. Therefore the film is not set in an alternate history, but an alternate future, approximately 2018. The completed Chinese space station also reinforces this theory, since this universe also slightly accelerates China's plans for their modular space station, which should be launching around 2020.
  • Seeing as the ISS is completely annihilated by the debris field during the film, it's definitely an Alternate History of some kind.

The radiation Ryan picked up in orbit plus the water she splashed into increased her size.
When Ryan finally stands up on shore, it's a low shot - kind of like she's
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Attack of the 50-Foot Whatever.

Kowalski wanted to die with dignity
Maybe he knew getting back to Earth was a long shot, so he wanted to go out on his own terms. He knew Ryan had him and could pull him in, but he still felt their chances were slim to none.

Something bad happened on Earth.
One would assume Mission Control would have contacted them somehow losing the satellites would be a hinderance, but wouldn't knock out communication altogether. They have dishes all over the earth to broadcast up directly without the use of satellites. SO... some horrible thing is happening on Earth, too. Not a nuclear exchange or anything like that - that would stick out like a sore thumb to the astronauts.

Ryan died on the Soyuz
When Ryan shuts down the oxygen on the Soyuz, she dies; the rest of the movie becomes far more optimistic from that point on, Ryan herself is much more proactive and confronts her fears, and she is able to pull off some magnificently lucky tricks without anything major going wrong, aside perhaps from the near-drowning. Given that the third act opens with the reappearance of Kowalski, which was clearly a hallucination, it's not a large stretch to assume that the rest of the film as All Just a Dream too as she slowly lost consciousness and suffocated.

Kowalski was always a hallucination.
Ryan's a bit of a Walter Mitty - she's not crazy, just a daydreamer. All the support Kowalski gives her is actually from inside herself. The astronaut who got hit in the head with the debris was actually the only astronaut outside with her. The opening conversation and events there go back and forth between her imagination and reality. Ryan actually has her own maneuvering pack - she just hallucinated Kowalski saving her and setting her attitude, she got to the ISS on her own. When she had gotten back to the ISS she realized she didn't need the hallucination anymore, so she let it go. Then, when she felt like all was lost, it came back for one last final bit of help.
  • This is supported by the fact that Kowalski was Commander of the mission. Mission Commanders (and pilots) don't perform spacewalks; that's what the Mission Specialists are for. So Kowalski would never have been outside the Orbiter in the first place.

Aningaaq did it
He is a comic book-level supervillain operating from a secret base in the Arctic who conspired for years to achieve his dream: messing with an astronaut in orbit. As per the plan, he sent a missile into a Russian satellite with the intention of causing a Kessler Effect and shutting all communications from Earth to space except his own, while framing the Russians for it. Then he picked the frequency to the ISS.

Ryan is a Kerbal
Specifically, she's Bill Kerman. Matt, of course, is Jebediah, and got down to Earth without any spacecraft at all.

Well of course Kowalski didn't die.
He's a George Clooney character. All it took was for him to flash a perfect roguish smile at the right time and the very laws of physics swooned. A gentle force that defied all notions of science then lowered him safely through the atmosphere and to a nice bar somewhere.

Kowalski's last appearance isn't a hallucination; he's an angel/ghost.
Kowalski died just about the time that Ryan decided to end it all by turning off the oxygen. Since the last thing he was doing was trying to save her, his spirit on the way out to its final destination was allowed by the powers that be to go visit her to talk her out of suicide so his sacrifice wouldn't be in vain and give her the idea she needed (the landing rockets) to save herself. And to brag to her that he broke the spacewalk record, of course.

The entire movie was an extended allegory for a troubled pregnancy.
When bullock and clooney were tethered heading to the ISS, they looked like a white thing with a tail. A sperm. When they reached it, Clooney detached like a sperm's tail and Bullock entered the airlock, symbolizing the start of her path to an allegorical rebirth. In the scene in the airlock when she rests, curls up into a fetal position, and an air hose floats up to look like an umbilical.

The soyuz scene was allegorical to a complicated third trimester where the fetus had difficulty properly positioning, and for a moment might have died in utero. The soyuz being out of fuel mean she could not leave the uterus and enter the birth canal, as if the cervix was not dilating properly.

The re-entry was clearly a very blatant metaphor for a dangerous labour, leading up to her struggling to take her first breath on earth after nearly drowning in the lake, just like a newborn struggling on it's first breath after delivery. Her emergence from the water was like her head emerging from the womb.

To complete the allegory, the movie showed her crawling on the shore, unable to walk immediately because she was in space for like a week and her muscles weren't used to it. She had to learn how to walk and stand.

This is a sequel to Apollo 18

The Russians didn't shoot down a satellite, they shot at a moon rock alien and some of that debris was actually aliens. Earth is embroiled in an invasion and nuclear war.

This film takes place in an alternative universe where the Apollo 13 mission was a success

This explains why the space program was more successful and Gene Krantz is still working mission control at NASA.

The lake she lands in is her home town of Lake Zurich, Illinois
Yes, I know, definitely not (I read up on the town and the lake the end was filmed in) - but it would be cool!

Anime/Planetes is related to this movie.

Kowalski was a Time Lord
Someone had to say it, plus he seemed too composed to be drifting in outer space. Because he knew that his TARDIS was waiting for him.

WWIII is going to start after the movie
Staring with all the nations blaming Russia for the whole fiasco.
  • The twist is NASA will lead the charge. Possibly including using the shuttle to carry out attacks on Russia.

Dr. Stone is going to find Aningaaq to thank him and they'll become best friends
Because that'll be a Heartwarming Moment. She'll buy him a dog or, better yet, he will give her a dog so she won't be alone

The clouds on Earth are where the falling satellites hit.
Not all of those satellites burned up on reentry. They struck cities and those are the impact points. Especially the debris from the Space Shuttle and the ISS.

Kowalski telling Stone that everything will be okay is really a Meta about this movie.
She is not only going to whip the Sci Fi Ghetto into submission, but also the idea that women can't lead in science fiction movies!

The whole film is Laika's dying dream.
The poor dog that the Soviets sent up in Sputnik, in her last moments, dreams she is a human astronaut. The bit where you hear Aningaag's dog howl and Ryan doing so along with it is a cue to her real self.

After the events of the movie, NASA will go apeshit.
The Russians fired a missile at a satellite, and it destroyed a space shuttle (with almost all of its crew), the ISS, and a Chinese station to boot. NASA will pull out all the stops to rescue its own. Imagine what they will do when someone else's negligence kills their own. My guess is a speech by the director of NASA that ends with "...or the next shuttle mission will be an attack on the Kremlin!"

The Chinese station was deliberately de-orbited
Instead of just saving themselves the Chinese deorbited their station so it did not become part of the debris field

Sometime after the events of the film, Stone will make the acquaintance of one Mark Watney.
Their meeting will presumably consist of comparing notes and agreeing that space sucks. They will then form the "Fuck You, Space" club.
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