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Faith in Space: A Review of “Gravity” Print E-mail
By Michael Baruzzini   
Wednesday, 09 October 2013

The film Gravity just opened to box-office success, telling a story about astronauts Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) who are stranded in space after satellite debris destroys their space shuttle. Cut off from contact with Earth (voice of Ed Harris, in a nod to his roles in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13), the two must try to survive. Spoilers, be warned, ahead.

Is this movie science fiction? It certainly has the feel of a science-fiction story. Its greatest achievement, however, is its stark realism, in particular the beautiful and realistic visuals. All of the spacecraft, the technology, and (with one major exception) the events that happen are real spacecraft and technologies, accurately portrayed. None of the elements are “speculative.” Gravity is not science fiction, but a disaster film set in the world of present-day spaceflight.

One area where realism is almost entirely sacrificed, and understandably so, is in the depiction of distances between objects orbiting Earth. There is no way that the characters could have managed to fly from the space shuttle docked to the Hubble Space Telescope, to the International Space Station, and to Shenzhou as they do in the movie. Each of these orbits at different altitudes and inclinations. It’s like making a film in which someone survives the Titanic by just swimming to shore.

Still, for dramatic purposes, belief may be suspended, and the plot is straightforward: a sequence of effect-packed events the protagonists must endure to survive. Like all action movies, the characters are given emotional backgrounds with “issues” that must be worked through: In this case, Stone’s tendency towards despair and passivity in the face of tragic events. The drama is sometimes a bit overwrought and just shy of contrived. But it hints at a religion-friendly perspective.

Stone lost her four-year-old daughter in a freak playground accident, and has coped by engaging only with her work, remaining distant and aloof otherwise. After the disaster and subsequent loss of Kowalski, she is the sole survivor and is prepared to give up. Having made her way aboard a crippled Soyuz capsule, Stone mourns the fact that she has never learned to pray, in part because she has never really believed in anything. She shuts off the oxygen to the cabin and prepares to die.

Suddenly, the lost Kowalski reappears outside, climbs aboard the capsule, and gives her a humorous pep talk, encouraging her to keep trying. He also reminds her that the Soyuz’ landing engines still have fuel, possibly enough to get her to the Chinese space station. (A science aside: Stone could have survived the brief exposure to the vacuum that she encounters in this scene when Kowalski opens the hatch, but not without consequences, and the fact that she’s just fine is a clue that something isn’t quite right about what follows.)


        Lost and found in space: Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone in Gravity

Who or what is Kowalski in this scene? The film is properly ambiguous. Is he a figment of Stone’s oxygen-deprived brain? Kowalski himself, communicating from beyond the grave? An angel? In any case, his message works. Stone awakes to find herself alone, turns the oxygen back on, and follows Kowalski’s suggestion to find the Chinese station, which is rapidly deorbiting, but still has a Shenzou capsule available.

During this final sequence, there appear at least two explicitly religious scenes: Aboard the Russian Soyuz, an Orthodox ikon above the spacecraft’s “dashboard”; on the Chinese Shenzhou, a statue of Buddha in the same location. Significantly, these religious images are featured on board the two spacecraft that play salvific roles. (The parallel figure we see aboard the crippled American space shuttle is a figurine of Marvin the Martian – the buffoonish cartoon alien bent on universal domination. Commentary, perhaps?)

When Stone finally reaches Earth, her capsule sinks to the bottom of a shallow lagoon. She must swim to the surface and pull herself, alone (rescue crews haven’t had arrived yet) onto the shore of an Edenic landscape. Climbing onto land, unused to the eponymous “gravity,” she needs a moment to learn to walk again – the baptismal and rebirth motifs of her redemption story here fitting perfectly into the actual consequences of spaceflight.

Throughout, Stone is always just a hair’s breadth away from becoming just another piece of cold debris floating through the vast, silent, beautiful cosmos. Vast distances and loneliness are ubiquitous, emphasized by the fact that Clooney and Bullock are the only actors ever seen alive in the entire movie. In one moment, Stone almost acquiesces to the “truth” of this empty loneliness, but through submission to a seeming act of revelation and a prayer, she manages to keep her life and is saved.

But as is Hollywood’s usual way, this saving faith is generic, grounded in eclectic religious symbols – not really faith in anything in particular. To be sure, this kind of ambiguity is often found in good literature. Anything more than hints and suggestions can descend quickly into heavy-handed sermonizing rather than good storytelling. Yet Stone’s discovery of the need for faith calls for the effort to ground that faith in something solid.

In the grandest scheme of things, Stone’s position marooned in space is really not that different than ours, sailing through the same vast space, albeit in our case on the Earth. Death is nevertheless a possibility at any moment. So what is this faith that finally saves? A delusional assertion of self in a fundamentally meaningless cosmos? A feel-good, eclectic spirituality? Or, to take a hint from the film’s respect for hard scientific fact, could there be a faith actually based in solid truth?

These questions aren’t answered in Gravity. But one thing the film makes clear, amidst its impressive visuals and exacting accuracy: for man, lost in the cosmos, to really live requires more than technical and scientific fact. It takes a faith and a hope that come from beyond us.

Michael Baruzzini is a freelance science writer and editor who writes for Catholic and science publications, including Crisis, First Things, Touchstone, Sky & Telescope, The American Spectator, and elsewhere. He is also the creator of
CatholicScience.com, which offers online scisnce curriculum resources for Catholic students.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

 

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Comments (8)Add Comment
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written by Grump, October 09, 2013
Despite the glowing review I can think of one good reason not to see this film: George Clooney.
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written by Louise, October 09, 2013
Michael, I can't read your column until after I see the movie since you said you have spoilers in it!
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written by Jerry Rhino, October 09, 2013
Favorite line from movie:
If I die I won't have anybody to pray for me.
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written by Seanachie, October 09, 2013
Sounds like Hollywood persists in its anti-U.S. drivel in Gravity. Diana West's American Betrayal is well worth the read re Hollywood's bent to sell Communism (and Communists)to the U.S. populace before, during, and after WWII. No surprise, I guess, that Hollywood (producers,directors, writers, actors, et al) would associate religious icons with Communist states and a foolish, clown-like image with the U.S. If anyone doubts Hollywood's disrespect for and persistent attack on traditional U.S. morals and values, view the rubbish that passes as family entertainment on prime-time U.S. television.
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written by Ian Brunt, October 12, 2013
Excellent movie and experience. Since you've commented on how many details were 'real'.... there was one missing. The robot arm on the shuttle and ISS always has the 'Canada' logo on it. :)
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written by Louise, October 14, 2013
Michael, I was wondering what you thought about the "fetal image" of Stone when she enters the first airlock and curls up in air (even "umbilical cord" seems present when the cable wafts around)? It seemed a bit of a prolife blurb but wasn't sure how it fit into the movie.
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written by Fr. Austin Norris, October 19, 2013
I share your views... I found immense lessons for faith learning in the movie. Thanks for sharing yours.... God bless
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written by Gus Bici, October 22, 2013
Alfonso Cauron's other movie, "Children of Men" was a Nativity Story while "Gravity" is a Baptism Story. Both powerful movies. BTW, my kid learned "Fully Rely On God" (FROG) in kindergarten, and the frog swimming by in the swamp made me smile:)

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