The religious dimenion of Gravity
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.