There are many spoilers in this piece. If you want to skip it, here’s a link to the most recent entry on this blog and here’s a relevant video. Now vamoosh!
My Main Claim
Gravity is fundamentally a movie about prayer.
What it postulates is to be human is to pray.
We see this most clearly in the film’s final word of dialogue, where Sandra Bullock has managed to somehow escape the clutches of the vast abyss of airless space and lands in a lake of water, almost drowns, and finally manages to crawl on to the sand of the beach in an unknown location (Isle of Skye maybe?) on the planet she calls home. Her words are, to nobody, to everybody, to God: “Thank you.”
To understand this, we have to go back to the decisive scene where the plot hinges.
There we find Sandra Bullock’s character giving up the will to live. She is lost in space. She thinks she finally has located a radio frequency that will put her in touch with Chinese astronauts. In fact, all she has achieved is to contact an amateur AM radio enthusiast somewhere inside the Arctic Circle. He believes her name is “Mayday”. He has absolutely no English. They have no means to communicate with each other.
In the background she can hear his dogs barking and howling. This sound, this creaturely sound of home evokes a profound emotional reaction in Dr. Ryan Stone. She longs to hear the dogs bark again. Then she mimics her radio operating friend, in his mimicking of a wolf’s cry. She is lost from her pack, her tribe, her clan, her species, her home. It is a picture of what it means to be a human being. We are somewhere between the other animals who are creatures – wolves, dogs – and God the Creator.
Dr. Stone floats in this unimaginably simple and yet complex space. In this, she is representing all humans, even as she is separated from them so profoundly that she cries for her “pack”, certain she’ll never be reunited with them again.
Why I Think My Claim Is Right
We found out earlier in the film that her daughter died at the age of four. In her soliloquy, overheard but uncomprehended by her AM radio friend, she speculates that they may be soon reunited. She will die. Nobody will mourn her. Nobody will pray for her soul. She can’t even pray for her own soul because nobody ever taught her.
“Nobody ever taught me how to pray.” she says. And tears fall from her eyes and float out into her capsule’s cabin.
And right at this moment she hears across the radio, the sounds of a baby crying in a shack in northern Mongolia or Alaska.
If Christianity is true, then the most basic cry of humans is the cry of birth and that means that is a cry that God himself has made. Jesus’ first prayer was his birth cry.
If Jesus is God, then even the wailing of a child is sacred.
If the Kingdom of God has come amongst us, a teardrop can be a more potent prayer than all the words of priests, sages and gurus.
Is It That Simple?
Not really, no.
This scene is the narratival and theological heart of the film but what happens next complicates things.
She hallucinates the return of George Clooney’s character, Matt Kalowski, who sacrificed himself to give her an opportunity to live. In this vision, she is inspired with an idea that will ultimately lead to her salvation.
What began as a simple pious presentation on screen of the fundamental human truth that we long to cry out for home now gets much more complicated. This is an effects-driven, CGI-heavy space movie. I don’t want you to think I’m arguing this is some elaborate philosophical thesis projected in the local Cineworld. For that, we have to wait a while for the next Terence Malick film.
But this prayer, followed by hallucination of a miracle is, I think, a serious step into depth on behalf of the film-makers. Let me be so bold as to suggest that the father and son team who directed and wrote this film are doing something very subtle and interesting here. What we have is a dramatic depiction of situation that the Christian finds herself in after Feuerbach.
Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.
Feuerbach was a friend of Marx, a German intellectual in the middle 1800s who developed a vicious and penetrating critique of modern Christianity. He looked at the comfortable Lutheran church of his day and saw nothing but self satisfied contentment dressed up in supernatural mumbo-jumbo.
He said Christianity is a collective hallucination. In Christianity, society projects all its internal abilities and potential on to a figment character, a charismatic phantom, God.
Now think back to Gravity.
She hallucinates. She projects all her own internal abilities and potential on to this figment character, this charismatic phantom, Matt.
He doesn’t exist.
The director, Alfonso Cuarón, has taken us to the edge of a profound picture of prayer. But where does this picture take us? To a stress induced delusion. He has subverted the religious scene we have just witnessed and shown it all to be wish fulfillment.
He is unwilling to make a pious film about how a general religiosity binds us together in some comfortable sentimental ease. The arrival of George Clooney’s character is an answer to prayer that destroys the credibility of prayer. Cuarón knows Feuerbach. He knows that religious belief is now as much about religious doubt as faith. Nothing can be simple for us anymore, if it ever was. The “miracle” is a figment of her own self-conscious. Dr. Stone is in the quagmire of faith after Feuerbach and Darwin, Nietzsche and the wars of the 20th Century.
But that is not where Cuarón intends us to stay. He won’t leave us there. Perhaps the God that we are calling out to is nothing but a product of our sub-conscious.
So Is It About Prayer, Or What?
Perhaps it is all a figment.
But, the vision tells the truth. From a psychologist’s perspective, Dr. Stone’s subjective experience has absolutely no referent. And yet it points towards the one thing that leads her home. And so Cuarón manages to undo Feuerbach and all the doubt and second guessing that Christians have inhabited since the 1840s by out-Feuerbach-ing Feuerbach.
Everything that Feuerbach says might be true of particular and general Christianities. It is wish fulfillment. It is corporate projection. That may well be true on the psychological level AND STILL God may be real. AND STILL, God intervenes.
The reason why that argument is sustained is that when she does finally make it to the Chinese space station, the Orthodox icon that sat above the dashboard of the Soyuz capsule is now replaced by a small dollar-store statue of a smiling Buddha. The different Feuerbachian expressions of religiosity that human culture has created may be referring to a shared human desire for the world to be charged with the grace of a supreme deity and yet nonetheless obtusely point us towards the gracious and supreme deity who is real.
Conclusion: Why I’m Sure I’m Right
Maybe I’m reading too much into this movie. I suspect that since we are dealing with the man who made Children of Men, that is not the case.
But here’s why I think my interpretation is in the right direction:
Dr. Stone is this titanic figure of human stamina and ingenuity. She refuses to give up. She yearns to live on. But when she finally arrives at her moment of salvation she issues this prayer of gratitude.
That “Thank you” reconfigures everything that has happened on the three different space-stations. It must be understood as a journey through Feuerbachian doubt and out the other end. It is at this point, at the creaturely point where the human is back on terra firma, that she stands up for the first time in the entire movie.
Remember how she stands after struggle? She has been lost in space, where life cannot exist. This experience has enfeebled her. She stumbles and then she stands. Her standing is pierced by weakness. This is a Christian anthropology, a reflection of the Imago-Dei. Human beings are lost in the complex and simple space between creature and Creator. Our lostness is experienced as alienation. Our suffering sighs are often our most eloquent prayers. But only when we understand ourselves as recipients of a gift, subjects of generosity, captive to gratitude, can we we ever hope to find land upon which to stand.
Of course, I’m also convinced because they made a companion piece shot from the perspective of the Inuit and with his talk of sacrifice and his depiction of human life in community even in the harshest of terrains, it sort of seals the deal.
Nobody can teach you how to pray. Prayer is the breath of God, returning whence it came.
Your Correspondent, He defies gravity.