I mean I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed—nobody ever taught me how.
Dr. Ryan Stone, Gravity
This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.
Sir Isaac Newton
Something for the weekend. The Hank Williams, Jr. tune Angels Are Hide to Find from the movie Gravity (2013). I picked up a copy of the movie Gravity, not expecting much, and assuming that I would probably quickly resell it on e-bay. Somehow I had managed to read nothing about the film. I was astonished at how much I enjoyed the film and how much it had to say about the human condition. My review is below and the usual caveat about spoilers apply.
The film opens with a scene outside of a space shuttle, Explorer. Dr. Ryan (Her father wanted a boy.) Stone, portrayed by Sandra Bullock, a medical engineer is attaching a device to the Hubble Space Telescope. Originally invented by her for medical purposes, this device will increase the range and accuracy of the views from the telescope. Mission commander Lieutenant Matt Kowalski, George Clooney, a veteran astronaut, is zipping around wearing a jet thruster Manned Maneuvering Unit, doing a space walk and wise cracking. After this mission he is retiring from being an astronaut. The film doesn’t mention this, but his rank struck me as a bit low for a veteran astronaut. Even as a Navy Lieutenant Senior Grade, his rank would only be the equivalent of an Army Captain. Perhaps a happy go lucky attitude has deterred his rise in rank.
In any case, the film’s peaceful beginning is shattered when they are informed by NASA that a missile strike by the Russians on a Russian spy satellite, probably a failing one, has caused a chain reaction where debris hurtling at high speeds is taking out other satellites. Houston warns them to abort the mission and that some of the debris is hurtling towards them, along with the news that with the satellite network going down due to chain reaction debris strikes, the astronauts will soon be without contact with Houston.
The debris strike occurs, killing a mission specialist, and smashing Dr. Stone free from Explorer, tumbling helplessly into space. Lieutenant Kowalski, in a bravura performance by Clooney, quickly demonstrates the advantages of having a trained military man around when the feathers hit the fan, by locating Stone, using his Manned Maneuvering Unit to reach her, tethers her to him, and begins to proceed back to Explorer, all the while keeping up a steady patter of chatter to keep Stone from panicking. When they get back to the Explorer they discover that the shuttle was breached in the debris strike, the two crew members inside are dead, and that they are marooned in space.
Kowalksi comes up with the plan for them to use his Manned Maneuvering Unit to make their way to the Soviet International Space Station 900 miles away. On there way there Kowalski learns that Dr. Stone had a daughter who died at the age of 4 when she hit her head at school while playing tag. Stone buried herself in her work and has withdrawn from any human contact outside of her work. (No mention is made of her daughter’s father.) If I hadn’t had my faith and family I think such an option would have been attractive to me after the death of my son.
When they get to the space station Kowalksi sees that the Soviets have used one of the Soyuz modules to evacuate. The remaining module is too damaged to be used for reentry, but could be used to the Chinese space station Tiangong, only sixty-two miles away. By the time they arrive at the station they are almost out of oxygen and Kowalski’s Manned Maneuvering Unit is out of gas. They make a hard landing, colliding with the station. Stone’s foot becomes entangled in the deployed parachute cord of the remaining Soyuz, and Kowalski, over Stone’s anguished protest, untether’s himself from her, sacrificing his life so he doesn’t drag her into space. It is a dramatic moment and completely unrealistic. They had stopped so neither had any momentum. With the gentlest tug on the tether Stone could have drawn Kowalski to her with no risk to either of them. Science was sacrificed for drama.
As he floats off into the void, Kowalski instructs Stone how to climb to the airlock hatch of the Soyuz and from there she can fly it to the Tiangong and from there use a reentry module to get back to Earth. His last words to her are to remark how glorious the sun looks shining on the Ganges River valley.
Stone makes it into the module and is unable to contact Kowalski, who presumably has died from lack of oxygen. Fighting a fire she makes her way to the Soyuz capsule. After a space walk to separate the capsule from the station, just as the station is destroyed by the a strike of the returning debris, she learns to her dismay that the Soyuz has no fuel. After a useless attempt to communicate with a Greenland fisherman by radio, she powers down the capsule, awaiting death from lack of Oxygen.
During her attempted conversation with the Greenland fisherman, Dr. Stone makes this statement:
“No one will mourn for me. No one will pray for my soul. Will you mourn for me? Will you pray for me? I mean I’d pray for myself, but I’ve never prayed—nobody ever taught me how.”
Like all prayers, this one was answered.
Kowalski reappears entering the capsule. An incredulous Stone asks him how he has survived. He mentions that it was a “helluva” story and that he had some extra battery energy. He then explains how they can get to the Chinese station using the landing jets. When she protests that she can’t fly the ship, Kowalski states that she has to decide whether she wants to go on or simply wait for death. He tells her that he understands that her kid died, and it doesn’t get any rougher than that. She has to determine what she wants to do. Kowalski vanishes, his visit being either a dream or a manifestation of Kowalski’s ghost. Stone is renewed with a determination to live, telling Kowalski to look out for her daughter in the next world and to tell her that she found her daughter’s lost red shoe. As she begins the trip to the Chinese station, we note a small Russian Saint Christopher icon on the dashboard.
Stone makes her way to the Chinese station and reenters the Earth’s atmosphere in the Shenzhou capsule, a small statute of Buddha in the capsule. Splashing down in what appears to be a lack she frees herself from the capsule and swims to an island and the movie ends.
I take Gravity in the title to stand for weighty matters as well as physical gravity. Death, God, the Purpose of Life, they are all there in this deceptively simple action film. Gravity reminds us that God is every with us: in the grief that envelops us like a suffocating fog at the death of a beloved, midst death and disaster, in the vastness and silence of space. God gives meaning to our struggles in this Vale of Tears and our hope that after this brief life we will be reunited with those we love. Science allow us to accomplish seeming miracles today, but without the faith and hope that comes from God they are empty and purposeless. William Blake saw this all long ago:
Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
No, I do not think I will be selling this video on e-bay.
And to end on a light note: