Gravity and prayers for those who travel by space

In Eastern Orthodox services, we regularly say prayers for those who travel “by land, by sea and by air.” I have often wondered if that prayer will ever be amended to include those who travel through space. I mean, if the prayer is as ancient as I think it is, then it has already been amended once before, to include those who travel by air, so it could easily be amended again, right?

In any case, I thought of that prayer while watching Gravity the other day — and not just because it’s a fairly realistic movie, set somewhat vaguely in the world of present-day space travel. (The Hubble telescope and the International Space Station are both in operation today, but the space shuttle program was mothballed two years ago — after Gravity had already gone into production — while the Chinese space station won’t be built for another few years at least.)

The film concerns two astronauts who are stranded in space after an unexpected cloud of debris destroys their shuttle, killing everyone on board. The two survivors escaped the destruction because they were outside in their spacesuits: Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who is on her first mission in space ever, was working on the Hubble telescope at the time of the incident, while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran who is on his last mission in space, was out taking a new thruster pack for a bit of a spacewalk.

So, after a harrowing and disorienting beginning, in which Stone is sent spinning through space and can hardly get her bearings, things settle down a bit as Kowalski retrieves her and informs her that they need to get to the International Space Station and claim one of its escape pods within the next hour and a half — before their air runs out, before the fuel in Kowalski’s thruster pack runs out, and before the debris storm circles the Earth and comes back to assault them again.

And that, of course, is only the first of the hurdles that they must overcome.

Despite the title, gravity is notable mostly for its absence from this film; it might more appropriately have been called Inertia. But the physics here are truly something to marvel at. It’s difficult to brace yourself against something when just about everything around you is floating around, weightless, just like you, and there’s a real sense of peril as Stone and Kowalski zoom past various panels and struts and antennae and try desperately to grab onto something.

It’s also good to be reminded just how naked and vulnerable and easily damaged things can be in space, when there is no air to slow down incoming objects, no clear ground for them to fall to (here on terra firma, even bullets start falling to the ground the moment they leave the gun), and no Star Trek-style deflector shields to prevent them from punching holes in you or your vessel. (The first film I can remember seeing that impressed this point upon me was Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars — a problematic movie in many respects, but not without its merits.)

The basically silent nature of outer space is used to good, unnerving effect here too, for example when the characters are moving in the foreground and a sudden bit of debris zips by in the background; because it doesn’t make a sound, you wonder for a second if you saw what you thought you did, and then of course you realize that it’s probably a sign of even worse debris to come, and the scene is made all the more harrowing by the fact that you saw it and the characters in the foreground didn’t.

I’m a little less impressed by director Alfonso Cuaron’s tendency to show off what he can do with computer-generated effects.

Much of Gravity is essentially an animated film, with live-action bits inserted into the action as needed, so the very long shots here are not as impressive as they might have been in a live-action film where the action is genuinely unfolding in front of the camera as it rolls. (If memory serves, Cuaron used CGI to erase the seams in a few seemingly long shots in his last film, 2006’s Children of Men, too.)

Cuaron also repeats a trick that he first used in 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, where the camera passes through a CGI window or mirror to show us what’s on the other side, and then passes back to where it started — except here, the camera passes back and forth through an astronaut’s visor.

I also share Kenneth R. Morefield’s concern that the film’s efforts to give the character pop-psychological depth are a tad extraneous; they add little to the film and, if anything, dilute the film’s purity somewhat. It is also hard not to think that, through the sheer banality of their dialogue (Kowalski’s in particular), the film is trying just a little too hard to make the astronauts seem Just Like Regular People.

But I do think there was more than just fill-in-the-blanks screenwriting going on in the case of Stone’s back story. Stone, we are told, once had a daughter who is now dead, and it is Stone’s awareness of mortality — both her daughter’s and, now, her own — that lends the film a self-awareness that goes beyond the merely technical to touch on something spiritual.

In one key scene, set aboard the ISS, Stone worries that there will be no one to pray for her soul — and as she keeps talking, we realize that she is essentially offering a makeshift prayer of her own, to whoever might be listening. And what does Cuaron show us, as this “prayer” begins? A close-up of an Eastern Orthodox icon, presumably left behind by one of the Russian cosmonauts, that depicts St Christopher, the patron of travelers.

What happens after this scene, I will not spoil, but suffice it to say that the sequence that follows is carefully left open to interpretation: both miraculous and naturalistic interpretations are possible, and it is all mediated through a cinematic trick that takes us briefly inside the mind of the character instead of simply showing us the objective world around her.

Tickled as I am by the appearance of an Orthodox icon, I cannot help but note that the way this icon functions in the film echoes a pattern that is often seen in Hollywood films: the main white American protagonists are typically secular and have no religion to speak of, while it is often some sort of exotic “other” who represents the spiritual dimension of the story. The Russian cosmonauts bring icons into space, and the Chinese taikonauts bring a smiling Buddha into space, but the Americans, as far as we can tell, bring nothing more than a Marvin Martian toy. (For his part, an Indian colleague of the Americans keeps a family photo tethered to his suit.)

Still, the fact that the film touches on spiritual themes at all is worth noting, and makes this film just a little bit more than the thrill ride that all the ads have promised.

Incidentally, Bullock and Clooney are the only actors that we see throughout the entire film, though we do hear a few voices as well, and one of them — the mission-control voice in Houston, fittingly enough — is provided by Ed Harris, who played John Glenn in The Right Stuff thirty years ago and a mission-control chief in Apollo 13 eighteen years ago. Scary to think that it’s been that long already, in both cases!

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  • emwcee

    I have attended an Orthodox Church, where “and space” WAS added to the prayer!

  • Jiggs

    I’m glad you posted a pic of the Icon. I noticed immediately during the movie it was St. Christopher and I thought the writing was in Greek (not Russian!). Thanks for confirming that…I don’t know why a Russian cosmonaught wouldn’t have left a Russian Orthodox Icon. Is that just a mistake by whoever was responsible for props? Pardon me, I don’t mean to be disrespectful by referring to an Icon of my Greek Orthodox faith as a prop. Could make for some good Gravity trivia though!