Gravity is the recently released, visually stunning science fiction thriller by Alfonso Cauron, director of Children of Men andHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The film follows a team of astronauts during a routine operation on an American satellite. Of course it’s not all routine, for female specialist Ryan Stone has been brought on the mission to implement new proprietary tech personally, despite her having only 6 months of training, during which she consistently failed simulator tests. When the Russians decide to shoot one of their own satellites out of the heavens, they create an orbiting debris field that hits the team and changes their mission from one of progress to one of survival.
The film is likely going to get nods in multiple technical categories at the Oscars. The cinematography, editing, visual effects, and sound design are all of a rare calibre, and many folks will also applaud the minimalistic screenplay and quiet yet striking direction. Cauron’s a talent, to be sure, and the fact that he can now add Gravity to his portfolio will only advance his status as one of the better filmmakers in the game today. The major downfall is the score, which at times made me feel like I was watching “Peter and the Wolf”, though not in a good way (because we all know that “Peter and the Wolf” is legit).
Whether the film deserves the many accolades it has received is a subject of debate, as is the film’s message. I had a very strong reaction to the film’s subtle and not-so-subtle touches, which I believe form something of a tapestry of philosophical concerns and intriguing ideas. I recently explained to someone slightly interested in Gravity that it would satisfy those looking for a tense thriller or an interesting and thought-provoking piece of science fiction filmmaking. This is a rare feat for films to accomplish, butGravity hits the mark.
While I am not going to do a beat-by-beat analysis of the film, I will assert that it is a deft and engaging exploration of the existential crisis the naturalist must not only endure but overcome to live a fulfilling life. I have given the above plot introduction, and I will not spoil more; I will merely present the subtext between the frames and leave those who have seen it to agree or disagree.
The film showed its hand early, when we see Dr. Stone ripped from the limb connecting her to the shuttle. The astronaut rolls at full rotations through space, alone and seemingly lost among the stars. She serves as a picture of each of us, born connected to society (the shuttle), living naively within our tribe (a novice among veteran astronauts), trying to live well and make progress (installing new tech). Of course, when the harsh reality of this world (the violent cosmos, an endless series of cause and effect events) finds us, we are torn from this fragile and false sense of security (the limb on the shuttle snapping, the shuttle being disabled), and by this experience we come to realize the truth, that ultimately, each of is alone, in a world (or living-providing spacesuit) that is hurdling through the darkness.
Over the course of our lives, we reach for human connection (other survivors), we locate other societies or tribes (space stations), and we desperately cling to whatever supposed structure we can (escape pods), but each of these also falls victim to the violent storm that is the natural order of give and take of survival, which is merciless, indiscriminate, and inevitable (the impending storm of debris). As Dr. Stone divulges new information to the viewer via conversations with other characters, so too does each human go through life accepting pain, confessing failure, and seeking connection. We may look to religion, but it’s no better than hallucinations and ultimately we must find within ourselves the knowledge and will to live despite the unescapable torrent of violence that continues to threaten our flourishing. When we do this, we become baptized by fire and reborn as one who is aware and enlightened, savoring one’s existence, such as it is.
At least that’s what I read from the narrative.
Whether or not Cauron intentionally did this I do not know, but I could not help read the film this way given its opening and subsequent visual queues, subjects of conversation, and moments of peril. Frankly, that one shot of Dr. Ryan soaring through space presented such a stunning picture of man’s plight (from the naturalist perspective) that I could not think of the film outside of the terms described, and I was moved deeply by such a bold image and honest exploration of a worldview with which I disagree.
I was also more grateful for my faith as a result of the experience. I am glad to believe that we are not merely material denizens in the uncaring darkness, subject alone to the causes and effects of natural order but, rather, we are each a combination of body and soul, beautifully entwined and wonderfully made, ever in view of a Creator who loves us and desires our communion. With that outlook in mind, getting lost in space is just intimate fellowship with the Divine, which doesn’t sound so bad after all.