In anticipation of the 86th Academy Awards on March 2, we present
a series exploring the theological and anthropological themes in each
of the nine films nominated for Best Picture. (Caveat: spoilers ahead.)
Director, Notre Dame Vision
Doctoral Candidate, Systematic Theology, University of Notre Dame
“Gravity is nominated for best film. It’s the story about how George Clooney would rather float away into space and die than spend one more minute with a woman his own age.” With this introduction at the 2014 Golden Globes, Tina Fey highlighted three nearly incontrovertible truths: 1) she herself is a comedic genius; 2) “George Clooney” is equal parts consummate superstar and well-groomed myth; and 3) Gravity occurs in the unstable space between life and death. By allowing us to transfer the real-life persona of George Clooney into the situational crisis of the astronaut he plays, Fey laughs with us (and the good-natured Clooney) at that which seems to hold together his indefatigable public image, without which he would presumably cease to be. It’s funny because it’s true—not necessarily that this is what defines George Clooney, but that the film itself poses the question of what gives meaning to a life encircled by nothingness. Gravity (if not Fey) is primarily concerned with the issue existential (dis)orientation.
Of the two characters who appear in the film, Matthew Kowalski (Clooney) is a veteran astronaut who is comfortable in space, while the medical engineer, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), clearly is not. For the astronaut, space makes sense—it has become a home for him, one in which he can set his bearings and measure distances. Stone, on the other hand, focuses on what tethers her. When debris hits the space shuttle on which they are working, Stone is jettisoned into open space, thrust into an accelerating somersault. She is without bearings, so Kowalski—equipped with a jetpack, of course—comes to find her. He becomes her lifeline, pulling her through space in an attempt to find a means for rescue. This connection does not last long, for soon Stone watches Kowalski ‘float away into space and die.’ Stone eventually touches the point of total abandonment when the last small shuttle that could carry her back to Earth fails to fire.
Stone is stranded, floating in an environment inhospitable to life, stripped of resources and without recourse to any safety. What she ultimately experiences is what, I imagine, all who have confronted such loneliness discover: that when we are alone, we confront our loss, because gone are the distractions that quiet the pain. Stone carries a wound and the wound runs deep. It is a wound that ordinarily leads her to drive aimlessly in her car at the end of the workday—a wound that presents itself fully now that she herself drifts aimlessly.
With all that, though, Gravity easily could have been just another shipwreck-struggle-for-survival tale. After all, even the extent of Stone’s isolation and the depth of her loneliness play on a fairly familiar narrative sequence. What distinguishes this film from others is not necessarily what the film presents but rather how it presents it. Through exquisite cinematography, Gravity visually, almost physically brings the viewer into this situation of crisis. Beginning with an early point-of-view shot of Kowalski’s panoramic glance back upon Earth, we are led along the border of our quotidian lives, moved to the periphery of our humdrum existence on Earth where all the conveniences and reassuring limitations of gravity hold us. The allure of the film is in the destabilizing effect it has on the viewer. As much as possible, it attempts to give us all the circumstances of Stone’s anxiety. In her, we discover a figure who is only stabilized when a point of reference is found or, more precisely, chosen. We are left to ponder a similar choice.
The question of the pivotal scene in the story is one for which the film offers no magisterial answer: When Stone loses hope, what stirs her back to life? Is it the memory of love within the depths of her loss, a whisper of hope that only now speaks a new beginning? Is it the remnant influence of the passionate Kowalski, whose steady audacity urges her to survive? Is it divine intervention, a response to her fledgling prayers? Is it homesickness, a longing suddenly so strong that even the anesthesia of death will not subdue it?
As the great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac wrote, “if we are more or less at peace in the world, it is simply that we are tepid” (The Discovery of God). In other words, far too many of us elect the soothing comfort of self-assuredness in some sort of prefabricated existence rather than risking our very being in the deep examination of what, exactly, rescues us from the infinite abyss over which both our anxiety and our freedom are stretched. In Gravity, this risk is not simply a matter of being in space, for Kowalski had made space a home and found a point of reference in the majestic beauty of the earth—rather, it is a matter of deep honesty, deeper than all distractions. The kind of honesty that hides in wounds, where hope is born, and with which one makes a choice about the meaning of things knowing full well that this choice is made over a yawning chasm.
One of my friends—a cancer survivor—declined the invitation to see the movie with me because, as he put it, he “no longer is in need of seeking out anxiety-inducing experiences.” I agree with his assessment: this film demands anxiety. Yet, despite the magnificent effort behind this intention, I would consider my own viewing experience a little underwhelming. This was not necessarily the fault of the film itself but rather of the venue. Though I saw the film in 3-D (which I almost always consider unnecessary and distracting) I did not watch it in an IMAX theater. This film was really made for an IMAX. Watching it on a standard theater screen felt a lot like watching a movie in the rearview mirror of my car. More often than not, I was preoccupied with the limited dimensions of my view and what I was therefore not seeing. If the action of the film feels at all like it is occurring in a contained space, then the intended effect is lost. The scene has to be big, even infinitely so, in order that you might feel small and lost and lonely, but also very awake and possibly aware. You may not like what you find there and you may prefer to just ‘float away and die,’ or you may discover that choice that means everything.