The religious dimenion of Gravity

The religious dimenion of Gravity October 12, 2013

Note: this post discusses the content of the move Gravity. If you don’t want to know, don’t read on!

Gravity is one of the best movies I have ever seen. Technically brilliant and emotionally draining, it leaves you dazzled and dazed. It is a simple story with the bare minimum of characters, centering around the struggle of two astronauts to survive in space after a sequence of devastating catastrophes.  Thanks to the ingenuity of the director, Alfonso Cuaron, you are drawn ever more deeply into the experience. You are there. You feel the anxiety, the claustrophobia, the sheer sense of terror.

Lots of people are writing about this movie and lots of people are praising it. But few are talking about the religious elements, which I believe are vital. The central protagonist is the Sandra Bullock character, a specialist with minimal astronaut training. As we see her, her life is falling apart. We learn that her four-year old daughter was recently killed in a random accident, and she comes across as emotionally numb and spiritually dead. At one point she says she cannot pray because she doesn’t know how.

Cuaron is on record saying that the movie is about rebirth in the face of adversity. Thus we see Bullock float in zero gravity in the fetal position, trying to detach a tether that looks eerily like an umbilical cord. The movie ends with an amazing scene of rebirth meant to mirror the evolutionary process. Under water, Bullock strips out of her space suit and clothes, and breaks through the surface of the water, past the all-too-obvious amphibians. She crawls out – four legs – and then stands on two legs, stepping into what looks like a bucolic garden of Eden.

So far so obvious. But what I could not help noticing were the recurring religious – and specifically Christian – undercurrents. Like nothing I have ever seen before, Gravity tries to portray what it is like to be utterly lost, to be cast adrift in a great sea of nothingness, helpless and entirely alone. In that sense, it acts as a metaphor for the absence of God, especially in terms of what Christians call the second death. No vision of hell, not even Dante, can come close to matching this kind of terror. There is a reason for that. We believe that we are made for the Creator and drawn to the Creator. Floating through the darkness of space, completely untethered, conveys the ultimate absence of God and of meaning. No wonder it feels so terrifying.

And yet Bullock does not die, physically or spiritually. Instead, she learns how to pray and she begins her journey of rebirth and redemption. After the Clooney character dies, giving his life to save hers, she asks for his intercession, imploring him to look after her daughter. Her prayer is clumsy but effective. At her very lowest point, as she is about to give up and slip into oblivion by turning off the oxygen, she receives the grace of supernatural assistance. Specifically, she sees a vision of Clooney that stirs in her the will to live, and imparts to her to means to survive. Just as grace builds on and transforms nature, Bullock becomes stronger and more determined and focused than ever, ultimately overcoming the continuous adversities being hurled against her. We see subtle signs of the supernatural all around, from the prayer card in the Russian station to the statue of Buddha in the Chinese station. God whispers through the silence of space.

The end of the movie – the ultimate rebirth – is beautiful. When she sheds her clothes, she is shedding her old life. This image is not uniquely Christian, but the links to baptism are clear. St. Paul might say she is putting on Christ, or clothing herself in Christ. She is certainly a new person, and has achieved redemption. The image of Eden suggests paradise.

Gravity ends with her simply saying “thank you”, an appropriate end to a journey that is – in a very real sense – liturgical.

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  • K

    This was an enjoyable reaction to read, MM, and one which provokes further reflection in me.

    I wasn’t as taken with some of those larger metaphors like that expressed in the final scene. I do love the theme rebirth, though, but I found compelling what I would consider less heavy-handed indicators. Even her simply, at some point, really wanting to get back to earth would have been sufficient for me.

    When the debris dislodges Stone and sets her adrift beyond the contact of potential survivors, I just find it really compelling the way in which her spinning beyond the reach of those who might help her anticipates the way in which the viewer will experience her as one who, emotionally, has already been detached. Personally, though, and this feels strange to write, but I would have preferred Stone to die. For her to have succeeded in finding some measure of emotional healing, and yet nonetheless dying, would have emphasized more strongly the importance of that emotional healing.

    I have mentioned in my own reaction here (which I was about to cross-post, thank you) that I really enjoyed the “tenderness” of this film. Though Stone is relentlessly challenged, I felt that interspersed were moments of beauty which point to meaning and as this meaning transcends physical existence, I feel it could have been more deeply emphasized by having her die physically.

    I have to think more about your “hell” observation.

    • Julia Smucker

      Protagonists never die in Hollywood. Not the central ones, anyway.

      • K

        Ah … but this is a Mexican picture and in Mexican pictures there is always plenty enough death to go around.

        • Julia Smucker

          Viva la diferencia. 🙂

    • trellis smith

      How do you mean transcending physical existence? Is that even possible or comprehensible for a physical being?

      • K

        What I mean is that the moments of beauty interspersed throughout this picture would not be rendered meaningless were the character to physically die.

  • Thanks for that, Kelly – please feel free to cross post! I’m perfectly aware that some of what struck me might not have been the explicit intention of Cuaron, but that’s always the case with art, isn’t it?

    As for her dying, that’s interesting. I thought there was a subtle ambiguity running through the film over whether she survived or not, and whether the rebirth could be seen as occuring in life or in death. Of course, the movie is clear that she lives. But it can be interpreted otherwise, and that’s what I found so intriguing.

    • K

      Good point. We aren’t bound to what has been intended by the director.

  • Yupper

    Kelly, what if instead of her unambiguously living or dying, her restored will-to-live had been made clear and then it had ended with the Chinese escape pod entering the atmosphere and burning, but with it unclear whether that was just the usual heat associated with reentry, or meant that it burned up and she died? Would that have worked? I understand what you mean by her surviving seeming too heavy-handed, but I think her unambiguously dying could be in its own way too. I might have preferred an ending where it was like, “Either way, dead or alive, at least I’m getting back to earth. Either way I’m going home” and then left the final survival question open as unimportant, given that, as you say, what was really important is the spiritual redemption, is that she fought like hell to live, and that’s enough for the triumph of the goodness of life even if she dies.

    • K

      That is a fine idea, Yupper; to have the picture close with her reentry into the atmosphere and leave uncertain whether she lived or died. It reminds me of that movie “The Grey” where – SPOILER ALERT – the film ends just prior to the big fight between the man and the beast which has been stalking him. The man readies himself to fight, however, and thus indicates his desire to live. That leaves whether he will or not as somewhat anti-climactic and so it is with Stone in Gravity.

  • I finally saw the movie this weekend and, following up on your excellent post, posted some additional thoughts on the religious dimension of Gravity. The focus of my post was on the evolutionary themes of the movie in which I brought in some thoughts from Teilhard de Chardin and Pope Benedict.

    I agree with Kelly that the story would be better if Stone had explicitly did at the end, as it would complete her journey from the hell of isolation in space to her entry into the next life.

  • Ronald King

    MM, I just saw the movie yesterday and I have to agree that it was one of the best I have ever seen especially in terms of dealing with death. Field of Dreams is another I like. One point that especially interested me was the scene in which she reached a point of “learned helplessness/hopelessness” which all human beings share in common and which we experience sooner or later in life. It is the scene in which she chooses to die, not a rational choice, although I perceive it being made through the interaction of subjective feelings of helplessness and hopelessness coming from the instinctive areas of the brain and the logical linear left-brain consciously logically believing this is the thing to do. When she loses the influence of the dominant left-brain function that is when the holistic, creative and intuitive right brain begins to take over which leaves her open to feelings and experiences normally repressed from conscious awareness. This may be the point of transcendence.