Through a Space Helmet, Darkly

'Gravity' Hints at Eternal Truth

GravityIt’s like a ghost, really—a battered, carbon-streaked hulk of a spacecraft bespeckled with cracked or missing ceramic tiles, and scars that betray the violence of reentry into our planet’s atmosphere. But the space shuttle Discovery—enthroned in its final resting place at the Udvar-Hazy Center in Northern Virginia—embodies our country’s colossal achievement of a reusable space vehicle for thousands of visitors every month.

With the virtual cessation of the United States Space Program that accompanied the retirement of NASA’s shuttle fleet, Americans haven’t been thinking about space much. And a government shutdown probably has many wondering whether the doors in Houston and Cape Canaveral, which are temporarily bolted, will reopen for manned space flight ever again. With the signature failures of the shuttle program—the Challenger and the Columbia disasters—etched in our memories, it’s easy to think little of the feat these crafts collectively represent. But the imagined last mission of the space shuttle Explorer in Alfonso Cuarón’s new film “Gravity” puts these accidents in perspective. Far worse could have happened. And our astronauts might have come face-to-face with the savage forces whose scars still mar the hulls of every space shuttle to return from orbit.

The story (spoilers ahead)

Sandra Bullock plays Dr. Ryan Stone, a technical specialist on board the space shuttle Explorer on a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. During a stomach-churning space-walk, Houston alerts the crew of Explorer that a Russian effort to decommission a spy satellite has gone sour, sending debris hurtling around Earth’s circumference at twenty times the speed of sound. A chain reaction results, carving a path of destruction through hundreds of other satellites and swelling the deadly debris field. The crew of the Explorer aborts its mission seconds too late as the shrapnel slams into their spacecraft, killing all but Stone and her comrade, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney)—both of whom find themselves careening through space in nothing but their suits. With limited oxygen supplies, the two attempt to reach the International Space Station, which, upon their arrival, reveals dangers of its own. Stone and Kowalski become separated, and an on-board fire forces Stone to flee in a cramped, damaged escape pod.

In a desperate bid to reach the one vehicle still capable of returning her to Earth, Dr. Stone strikes out for a derelict Chinese space station. Summoning the courage to fight instead of surrender, she hitches a ride on the plummeting vessel as it reenters earth’s atmosphere and miraculously survives to plant her feet again on solid ground.

The art

I recall nights past when I would walk into the dark field near my parents’ rural home and gaze up at the stars. On one such occasion, I played Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on my iPod. For me, few things have ever captured the haunting beauty of deep heaven like that piece of music. This film was one.

Acclaimed director Alfonso Cuarón does a spookily excellent job of capturing the true meaning of space: no dimensions like “up,” or “down,” no time as humans measure it, no night or day, no air, no life, and no gravity—at least until you get a little too close to the Earth. The entire film scintillates with celestial majesty and peril as the camera weightlessly circumnavigates each scene, capturing, from every conceivable angle, gut-reeling vistas of our azure planet, and flinging us, disoriented, into panoramas of deep space.

Unlike in so many recent films, the CGI shines without overreaching and the characters capture audiences’ emotions with elegantly little exposition or backstory. Old pros Bullock and Clooney run the show with little more than faces seen through space helmets at their disposal, and the film’s ability to slip us into the characters’ bulky suits to experience their terror, vertigo, and suffocating brushes with death surpasses nearly everything else I’ve seen. “Gravity” is intense enough without the full IMAX format.

And oddly for a story set in a vacuum, the sound—particularly the poignant and often tear-jerking radio dialogue—shines just as brightly as the visuals.

The message

I haven’t yet seen anyone compare “Gravity” with M. Night Shayamalan’s 2002 thriller “Signs.” That strikes me as odd, because the two films tell a virtually identical fable. In both, a protagonist (Sandra Bullock and Mel Gibson respectively), embittered and disillusioned by the accidental death of a loved one, dismisses the existence of God on that basis, waiting for the hammer of dumb fate to fall again. In both, the characters face a threat of astronomical proportions (and origin), which forces them to either give up or fight tooth-and-nail to survive. Both characters find themselves re-learning prayer in the midst of their danger, scraping by through unthinkable odds, and ultimately regaining their faith and thanking a Power whom they believe intervened on their behalf.

For Dr. Stone, a character whose heart has drifted in the recesses of space since her daughter’s freak accident, the cold and darkness hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface offers nothing too alien. This movie tells the story of her return to Earth not only physically, but spiritually.

All of us, when struggling to cope with unbearable grief and anger with God, may face a similar journey back from our self-imposed exiles in the vacuum. But perhaps unlike Bullock’s character in “Gravity,” who alternately fixes her hope on an Orthodox icon of Jesus in a Russian spacecraft and a grinning Buddha in the Chinese landing module, we know of a Power in whom we can rejoice more than Dr. Stone rejoices in Earth’s muddy surface upon her miraculous landing. The Heavens proclaim His glory—and so does this movie, as if through a glass (or a space helmet), darkly.

Image copyright Warner Bros. "Gravity" is rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images, and brief strong language.

G. Shane Morris is Web manager for BreakPoint and the Colson Center.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


It's a ~story~ meant to convey ideas and themes
Flash, and RobbieD,

"Gravity" is a motion picture, a story meant to convey ideas and themes. It is not a science text, nor a recounting of an actual historical occurrence. All stories abound in some level of improbable events; that's why we have the term "suspension of disbelief." In fact, this particular film finds one of its themes in the ever-mounting improbable events. All the unlikely dangers depicted in the film -- and the "serendipitous" escapes -- lead to an overwhelming sense of the Providence and intercession of a power outside natural reality.

I'm sorry you were unable to suspend your disbelief enough to enjoy what the story was trying to convey -- its ideas and themes. Fortunately, G. Shane Morris was able to see those themes, to appreciate the ideas they provoked in his mind, and to discuss how they can help him (us) appreciate the Truths in Gods reality.

Regarding evolutionary ideas, I, too, an vigilant to detect and assess such ideas that infuse so much popular culture and art. Fortunately, I felt that "Gravity" didn't mire itself in such a worldview. Instead, it very subtly showed how Dr. Stone was lost because "no-one ever taught me how to pray," and she was saved through the Providence of some force greater than herself (including Capt. Kowalski's willing sacrifice).

Overall, "Gravity" was an excellent, thought-provoking story, and an awesome vicarious experience.
Thanks for the encouraging commentary Shane. A wonderful truth about our great Healer God.

I'm plagued with a literal mind, and that to a fault as I spent most of the movie reeling at the ever-increasing improbabilities that I was being asked to overlook...so many that I'm sure I missed whatever secular humanist message was being peddled this time. I love RobbieD's comments and how he ties this to all that we are routinely being asked to overlook to when debating evolutionists. While the movie raises the bar on special effects and deserve every award it will achieve on that merit, the plot was as ridiculous as evolution and has given me a great conversation starter with secular humanists!
Point missed due to technical probs
All that may be true, but this film suffered from such poor production, but for the CGI, that picking up the story was challenge enough.
Which may itself be a lesson...
What are the chances
I like your thoughts...Did you see any tipping of the hat to evolution in the massive number of lucky happenstance that helped Dr Stone survive and crawl from the water to the sand at the end? [of course to compare to the chances assumed in evolution the space ships and dead characters would have had to reassembled and come back to life]. I did, however, ask myself about the slow image of Dr Stone grunting and rising from the water/lake shore sludge to walk on the sand....was that an intentional message?