“Space: the final frontier.”
It is a phrase immortalized by Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, and one heard so frequently that it has lost some of its meaning. The implication is that we have conquered Earth; in a world devoid of mystery or lost continents or hidden species, we must cast our gaze upward to be confronted by the wondrous. Space, then, represents man’s ever-vigilant foe: limitation. As the opening script of Alfonso Cuarón’s recent film and Oscar nominee for Best Picture, Gravity, reminds us: “Life in space is impossible.”
It is no surprise, then, that man’s venture to the moon (and beyond) has been such a symbol of our unstoppable progress. Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey even set space travel as a benchmark which, once reached, would communicate to the more highly advanced cultures throughout the universe that man was ready for the next step. As we walked into the theater to experience Cuarón’s Gravity, it would have been reasonable for us to expect more of the same “man overcomes all” narrative that we have attached to NASA, space travel, and Tom Hanks. Instead, we find a masterfully overwhelming story urging us not toward domination, but toward accepting our limitations.
The shot begins inside the helmet. We are slowly spinning. In our ear we hear the sound of fearful, sharp inhales. They are someone else’s, but they might as well be ours. As we spin, Earth comes in and out of view, replaced by the deep dark of space. The camera slowly turns to see the terrified face of Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock), calling for help over her headset.
“Explorer do you copy?”
“Houston do you copy? Houston this is . . . mission specialist Ryan Stone. . . . I am off structure and I am drifting. Do you copy?”
The spinning continues with painful regularity.
Finally the camera backs out of Dr. Stone’s helmet and holds as we watch Dr. Stone, slowly cartwheeling, float out into space, growing smaller and smaller. The lights on her helmet flicker with each turn. We can see no Earth. We can see no sun. Even the stars are mostly dimmed. And Dr. Stone, alone, is drifting away.
Gravity consistently puts the characters face-to-face with their physical limitations, but this is not the extent of our protagonists’ struggles. Like Cuarón’s previous film (Children of Men, executed with nearly flawless craftsmanship), Gravity tells the story of someone who has suffered and must make sense of how to approach a world full of irrational suffering. For Dr. Stone, this means coming to terms with the death of her young daughter.
“Stupidest thing; a school trip to the swimming pool. She was playing tag—she slipped, hit her head, and that was it.”
Dr. Stone’s journey to escape this pain has brought her here, into the cold nothingness of space. Yet as things begin going wrong, Earth, the home of her greatest suffering, becomes her only hope of survival.
But Dr. Stone is not alone as she begins her descent. She has a priest of sorts in Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Frequently, even in the most dire situations, Kowalski comments on the beauty of the Earth below (or above) him and invites others to do the same. The camera follows suit; even as Dr. Stone runs low on air, the camera looks out to the Earth, framing it in a way that we land-bound folk have never before seen. In the script, Earth is described in vivid colors as “mythical and majestic,” “massive and serene,” “beautiful . . . [and] full of life.” This is part of the brilliance of Gravity: it passes as science fiction, but instead of giving us aliens or intergalactic battle, calls us to marvel at that which we already know.
Caught between overwhelming beauty and tragic evil, Dr. Stone is not meant to understand. She is meant to accept it that they must co-exist.
This impulse of Alfonso Cuarón’s, to accept without explaining, also ripples throughout the Scriptures and, if we are honest, throughout our experiences. This question—“Why do I suffer in a world of beauty?”—will only take us so far. Eventually we must ask, instead, “How must I live in a world of suffering and beauty?”
We need to make something clear as we continue. Gravity does not intentionally espouse an orthodox Christian worldview. We can show no greater disrespect to an artist than to force our worldview onto his or her work. Our first calling, as film viewers, is to cooperate with the author and hear what he or she is actually saying. The latter half of Gravity seems to be more in line with a sort of deism than Christianity. And yet we find within this film many truths we can affirm wholeheartedly. Echoes, so to speak, of the true story.
Like the story of Job, no real answer is given for Dr. Stone’s suffering. Job may be aware of man’s rebellion in the Garden of Eden, but he receives no situationally specific answer to his cries of pain. To quote Ecclesiastes, he must be content to know “God is in heaven and you are on earth.”
Even so there is empathy for our suffering. We serve a God who has initiated, time and time again, and who ultimately sent his Son. This Jesus was tempted as we are and wounded by the betrayal of his friends. He cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Never trust someone who can speak about suffering without weeping.
Sometimes God does give us reasons. And we must wrestle with difficult questions. The psalms certainly give us license to bring our pains and frustrations before God.
But often, after praying for relief, working to alleviate pain, and longing for its final undoing, we must ultimately decide whether God is good or not. In these places, we are finally called to submit. We are not Christians because, out of all thought systems in the world, Christianity is the most coherent. We are Christians because God has initiated relationship with us, because he desires to dwell with us, because he broke through history with his Son.
Appreciating mystery need not eliminate certainty. We are certain that God became man. We are certain that all things work for the good to those who love God, and that suffering is a great evil. But we must submit to the mystery of how these truths technically work with each other.
Insofar as we misuse theology or devotionals or prayer to avoid submitting to the mysteries around us, we are more likely striving to be God rather than his creatures.
Dr. Stone sits in the pod, helmet off, as Kowalski speaks.
“Listen, do you wanna go back? Or do you want to stay here? I get it, its nice up here. You could just . . . shut down all the systems, turn out all the lights, just close your eyes and tune out everyone. There is nobody up here who can hurt you. It’s safe. What’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living? Your kid died. It doesn’t get any rougher than that. But still it’s a matter of what you do now. If you decide to go, then you gotta just get on with it. . . . Hey Ryan?”
“It’s time to go home.”
If we want to get picky, we can poke holes in Gravity. But Gravity invites us into a particular way of viewing the world. It does not try to explain how suffering and wonder, miscarriage and wedding days, droughts and afternoon showers, coincide. It does not deny the incredible pain we feel in this life. But it does invite us to accept that we are created, that some mysteries we will never comprehend, and that “there is nothing better for [man] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live . . . that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.”
(I am heavily indebted to Jack Collins for his understanding of Ecclesiastes and suffering. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, he “bears no responsibility for the defects of the final product”)