You have likely already heard two things about the space-epic, Gravity. You have heard that it is a visually stunning, anxiety-inducing thriller that immediately absorbs you into its world and does not release you until the credits roll. That is largely correct. You have also heard that Gravity is not really about space. It is really about the inner struggles of the main character, Dr. Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock. This is also true enough. But what exactly is Gravity trying to tell us about this inner human struggle being played out against sublimely rendered vistas of earth and space?
As Matt Thomas astutely noted, Gravity trades in both the natural sublime and the technological sublime. The first of these is a common enough notion: it is the sense of awe, wonder, and fear that certain natural realities can inspire in us. Gravity gives us plenty of opportunities to experience the natural sublime as our gaze alternates from the meticulously wrought surface of the earth to the starry, cavernous darkness of the space which envelops it.
The technological sublime is a concept developed by the historian David Nye to describe the analogous feelings of awe, wonder, and fear that we experience in the presence of certain man-made realities. Nye documented a series of human technologies that inspired this kind of response when they were first developed. These included the Hoover Dam, skyscrapers, the electrified city-scape, the atomic bomb, and the Saturn V rockets. In Gravity, depictions of the space shuttle, the International Space Station, and the Hubble telescope — even after they have been pummeled and shredded by space debris — also manage to evoke this experience of the technological sublime.
Against this double sublime, Gravity unfolds its plot of disaster and survival. [Yes, spoilers ahead.] Within minutes, Dr. Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) find themselves adrift after a field of space debris strikes the shuttle and kills the rest of the crew. Kowalski is preternaturally calm in the face of this unthinkable catastrophe. After he recovers Dr. Stone, the pair begin making their way to the ISS in hopes of using the station’s Soyuz capsule to return to earth. Had that initial plan worked, of course, it would have been a very short film.
Upon arriving at the ISS, Kowalski is lost in an act of heroic self-sacrifice and the capsule turns out to be too damaged to survive re-entry. Before he is lost, Kowalski lays out a plan of action for Dr. Stone. She is to take the battered capsule to the Chinese space station and then use their emergency capsule for the journey home. Stone manages to follow this plan, but one near catastrophe after another ensues maintaining a feverish pitch of suspense, or, as some critics have noted, threatening to steer the film into melodrama.
It is in the midst of one of these crisis that Stone is tempted to give up altogether. She finds that the Soyuz capsule does not have enough fuel to get to the Chinese station and so she opts to turn off the capsule’s life support systems and float off into that other dark abyss. This scene is pivotal. We have already learned that Stone lost a daughter in a painfully random playground accident. Ever since, she has lost herself in her work and driven aimlessly at night to assuage her sorrow. She is alone in space now, but she realizes that she is alone on earth as well. No one would mourn her loss, she realizes.
As she begins to doze into unconsciousness, however, Kowalski reappears, chatty and calm as always. He acknowledges that there is something appealing about the escape she is about to make, but he encourages her to reconsider and suggests a strategy that she had not yet considered. And then he disappears. We realize that she had been hallucinating, but she rallies nonetheless and determines to not give up on the hope of return quite yet.
If Kant and Nye help us to describe the sublime scenery against which Stone’s struggle is set, I’d like to suggest that Wendell Berry and G.K. Chesterton can help us make sense of the struggle itself.
Stone must learn to see life on earth — with both its heartache and tragedy, its joys and delights — as a gift, and it is through a kind of death that her perception begins to be realigned. Wendell Berry has beautifully captured this dynamic in his reflections on a wonderfully poignant scene in Shakespeare’s King Lear involving the blinded Earl of Gloucester and his son, Edgar. Gloucester is in despair, and seeks to take his life. The life he thought himself the master of has unraveled, and he has compounded this troubles by falsely accusing Edgar and driving him into exile. But Edgar, disguised as a beggar, has returned to his father to lead him out of despair so that the old man may die in the proper human position, “Twixt two extremes of passion, joy and grief …”
As Berry puts it, “Edgar does not want his father to give up on life. To give up on life is to pass beyond the possibility of change or redemption.” So when Gloucester asks to be taken to the cliffs of Dover so that by a leap he may end his life, his disguised son only pretends to do so. The stage directions then indicate that Gloucester, “Falls forward and swoons.” When he awakes, his son now pretends to be a man who has seen Gloucester survive the great fall. Gloucester is dismayed. “Away, and let me die,” he says. But Edgar, narrates what he has “seen” and proclaims, “Thy life’s a miracle. Speak yet again.”
It is that line, that realization that brings Gloucester back from despair. Having passed through a kind of fictive death, he has been brought once more to see his life as a gift. And so it was with Stone. Kowalski plays Edgar to her Gloucester and having flirted with death, she is recalled to life. No longer does she long for the escape into death that the dark, harshness of space represents in this film. She now determines to find her place again on earth, with all of its attendant sorrows and joys.
So much for Berry, what of Chesterton? Chesterton famously came to faith through an experience of profound gratitude for the sheer gratuity of being. While she ponders the possibility of death and laments that there will be no one to mourn her, Stone also says that there will be no one to pray for her. She confesses that she cannot pray for herself. She was never taught. When, finally, she has reentered the earth’s atmosphere and her capsule splashes down in a murky lake, Stone must make one more fight for her life. The capsule is inundated and she must swim out for air, but she is forced to struggle with her space suit, which threatens to sink her. Once she has fought free of this last obstacle, she makes her way to a muddy shore and, cheek to clay, she exhales the words, “Thank you.” She has, I take it, learned to pray.
This film about space ends on earth as Stone struggles to her feet under the pull of gravity. But by the composure of her posture and the joy of her expression, we are encouraged to conclude that now, finally, Stone is not only on earth, but she is also at home on earth. She no longer seeks an escape. She is prepared to live with both grief and joy. She knows too that for all of the sublime splendor of space, it is her life that is the most profound miracle for which the instinctive response can only be gratitude.