Director Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is being hailed as perhaps the best space-centric flick since 2001: A Space Odyssey. The story is taut and relentless. The special effects are amazing. It's both intimate and epic, and I imagine we'll still be talking about this flick come Academy Awards season.
But in the midst of this straightforward story of two people trying to survive in the not-so-friendly confines of space, there's a resonant, deeply spiritual message at play.
Space newbie Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is in a pretty dark place, spiritually speaking — and the view from space isn't doing much to cheer her up. She's still grieving the loss of her young daughter — killed in a freakish accident — and is half dead herself. When her co-astronaut Matt (George Clooney) asks her what she likes most about being up in space, she says the silence. When he asks what she did during her off-hours back on earth, she says she just drove. She wasn't living, really. She was existing. Even though she was still drawing breath, a good part of her was already dead.
And it's interesting that, when it looks like she could actually die, she seems at times nearly resigned to her fate. Not indifferent, really, but she carries with her an air of fatalism. In perhaps her darkest moment, she actually turns off the oxygen keeping her alive and prepares to give herself to the void. And as you might expect, her thoughts turn toward her daughter, and to faith — even though Ryan's never been religious.
"Nobody will pray for my soul," she says. "I've never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how." But then, in the midst of that deep-space crisis, Ryan receives some sort of a visitation — perhaps a trick of the mind, perhaps a hallucination, perhaps a miracle. But whatever it was, it saves her life. In this moment, Ryan rediscovers a will to live. She is, in the depths of this void, reborn.
For millennia, heroes have gone to hell and back — often quite literally — to reclaim a loved one and/or find new life. Gods and men alike have made the trip, from Egypt's Osiris to Sumeria's Gilgamesh to Greece's Hermes and Odysseus and Orpheus.
But the most powerful (and, in my belief, the truest) of these stories is that of Jesus, who died and (as is written in the Apostle's Creed) descended into hell, and rose again to bring us all the possibility of new life.
Many Christian literary figures, from Dante in his Divine Comedy to Christian in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, make their own descents into hell or hell-like environs in order to make the trip to salvation. In Christianity, we all believe that we "live" in death — even when we're still physically very much alive — until our belief in Jesus, and his love for us, pulls us out of it. It's one of the central paradoxes of our faith: In life, death. In death, life.
Ryan starts Gravity in a sort of hell. Indeed, the horrific lethality of empty space makes Dante's ninth circle look almost balmy. It's a cold, dark, empty place — a void where God's creations are inherently absent and his creatures cannot live without some serious technological help. And it serves, frankly, as a convenient analogy for Ryan's own state of mind — a Demeter who lost her Persephone.
"I wake up, I go to work, and I just drive," she says. Though the doctor still lives, technically — still breathes — she is cold. Empty. A void, like the cosmos around her. She left life behind many months ago.
But in the emptiness in space and the death that surrounds her, she finds (or is given) new life. New will. A new spirit, in a way. She finds it when she's at her absolute lowest — a penlight in the darkness, a spark in the cold, a grain of substance to fill the void. It gives her the gumption to fight and find her way home. She turns from the darkness and heads toward that sun-lit orb of life. She crawls out of the underworld (or, in this case, outerworld) to feel the brush of the breeze on her face, the warmth of the sun on her skin. She finds her way home.
I don't know if the makers intended Gravity to take on such grave spiritual dimensions. But maybe it's telling that Ryan's thoughts, at both her lowest and highest points, are focused on her daughter. When Ryan's at her lowest, she clings to the thought she might join her little girl in death. When she regains her will to live, she's not in such a hurry — but she has no doubt that her daughter's with her — watching her, listening to her. That she's there, living in a way that maybe Ryan didn't understand before. Ryan not only decides to live for her daughter, but her daughter lives in her. Death is not the end.
Obviously, the movie's musings on life and death can be taken a myriad ways. But for Christians like me, there's a special resonance to be found. We can find life after death, the movie suggests. We can be born again, even in the coldest and darkest of places.
This essay contains spoilers about Gravity. If you plan to see the movie, you may want to save reading this essay for after you go.
Paul Asay is the author of God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach us About God and Ourselves. He works as a movie reviewer with the Christian outlet Pluggedin.com.