• Strange Notions Strange Notions Strange Notions

What ‘Gravity’ Teaches us about Technology and God

Gravity

Spoiler alert: The article below includes key plot details for the film “Gravity."
 
Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” is the most visually arresting movie I've seen since “Avatar.” Its special effects have been quite rightly characterized as revolutionary and groundbreaking. But what is perhaps most surprising about this stunning film is its clear and profound religious import.

The movie opens with a splendid vista of the earth viewed from outer space. As we are taking in this delicious vision, we begin to notice a vehicle moving toward our point of vantage. We then make out around the craft a crew of astronauts busily working, fixing, and exploring. The sheer wonder of human technology, our capacity to master our environment, is vividly on display.

But trouble quickly comes. The debris from a series of shattered satellites, we learn, is moving rapidly toward the craft. Before the crew can fully brace for impact, the space station is struck and catastrophically compromised. Most of them are killed instantly, but two figures—mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock)—are left alive but in desperate danger. After a series of unfortunate accidents and coincidences, Kowalski is left clinging to Stone as she clings to the remains of an abandoned Soyuz Soviet space station. It becomes clear that Stone can survive only if Kowalski detaches himself from her. Despite her tearful protestations, he lets go and drifts lazily off into space and certain death. The last word we hear from him—and it is the first hint of the movie’s spiritual ambitions—is his serene comment that the Ganges looks beautiful with the sun glinting off of it. As he performs the supreme act of love (“greater love hath no man than to give his life for his friend.”), he contemplates one of the most religiously charged locales on the planet.

Freed from Kowalski, Stone makes her way into the Soyuz and finds the pod on which she hopes to fly to a Chinese vehicle, which will finally take her home. But to her infinite chagrin, she discovers that there is no fuel in the Soviet pod and that she is, accordingly, surely doomed. With tears and much hesitation, she commences to pray, though she admits she doesn’t really know how to pray, and at this point, we notice an icon of St. Christopher on the instrument panel of the pod. Her prayer apparently unanswered and resigned to her demise, she then allows the oxygen to run down, so as to commit suicide by hypoxia. But just as she starts to drift into unconsciousness, Kowalski, to our infinite surprise, suddenly opens the hatch and bursts in. With bravado and confidence, he switches on the lights, turns on the oxygen and shows Stone how to activate the pod. However, just when we thought that the day had been saved by this deus ex machina, we discover, in the next scene, that Stone is still alone.

Had Kowalski’s appearance been just a hallucination produced by oxygen deprivation, or had it in fact been a visitation from a figure now in heaven, or was it, perhaps, the latter by means of the former? At any rate, she took it to be a link to the transcendent, for she immediately asked Kowalski to communicate her love to her four year old daughter who had died some years before in a freak accident. None of the vaunted technology that she had mastered had ever allowed her to contact her beloved daughter, but now she had found, precisely through a figure who had manifested perfect love, a route of access, a means of communication to a realm beyond this one.

Inspired by her supernatural visitation, Stone summons the courage to fly to the Chinese spacecraft and hurtle on it back to earth. While she navigates the vessel, she sees, over its instrument panel, a little statue of the smiling Buddha—the third explicitly religious symbol in the film. After splashing down in an unidentified body of water, Stone crawls to shore, grasps the wet sand in her hands, and mutters the final word of the movie: “Thanks.” The one who had admitted that she didn’t know how to pray utters, at the end, a beautiful and altogether appropriate prayer.

The technology which this film legitimately celebrates is marvelously useful and, in its own way, beautiful. But it can’t save us, and it can’t provide the means by which we establish real contact with each other. The Ganges in the sun, the St. Christopher icon, the statue of the Buddha, and above all, a visit from a denizen of heaven, signal that there is a dimension of reality that lies beyond what technology can master or access. The key that most effectively opens the door to the reality of God is nothing other than the kind of self-forgetting love that George Clooney’s character displayed, for God, as the first letter of John tells us, is love. In and through that love, which permeates and animates the whole of the creation, we find connection to everything else and everyone else—even to those who have passed from this life to the next. How wonderful the technology that allows us to explore the depths of space, but infinitely more wonderful is the love which, in Dante’s unforgettable phrase, “moves the sun and the other stars.”
 
 
Originally posted at Cradio. Used with author's permission.
(Image credit: Universe Today)

Bishop Robert Barron

Written by

Bishop Robert Barron is Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. He is an acclaimed author, speaker, and theologian. He’s America’s first podcasting priest and one of the world’s most innovative teachers of Catholicism. His global, non-profit media ministry called Word On Fire reaches millions of people by utilizing new media to draw people into or back to the Faith. Bishop Barron is also the creator and host of CATHOLICISM, a groundbreaking, 10-part documentary series and study program about the Catholic Faith. He is the author of several books including Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master (Crossroad, 2008); The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Orbis, 2002); and Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith (Image, 2011). Find more of his writing and videos at WordOnFire.org.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Michael Francis Goodwin

    Great reflection. I am reminded of a talk done awhile back by Peter Kreeft, a favorite Catholic writer of mine. On a talk he gave concerning ecumenism, he concluded by speaking on the idea of spiritual gravity. He drew from the promise made by Christ, when he said, “When the son of man is lifted up he will draw all men to himself.”. Kreeft went on to talk about how Jesus is the focul point of spirtual gravity. Those who desire God are not left wandering, but are drawn to Christ, even sometimes in spite of the Church. He gave example of the passion evangelicals have for having people encounter Jesus. Kreeft said that while these people may not have encountered the fullness of truth yet, God is still one to draw them as close to Himself as they can come because of our need for relationship with him. Just a few minor points of story detail correction from your analysis above. The astronauts start on the Space Shuttle, working on the Hubble telescope when the disaster strikes. Then they travel to the International Space Station to try and use the russian designed escape pod. That pod had its shoot deployed as a result of the debris contacting it. So Stone uses the pod to travel to a nearby Chinese station that has a nearly identical escape pod. Its confusing though because the ISS pod has a Russian name because it was created by them and the other pod has a Chinese name because it is a part of the Chinese station. The ISS was a collaborative project where parts were created by a few different countries. So there were three locations throughout the film. Its not a really big deal, but I thought I’d clarify. Here is the excellent Kreeft talk: http://peterkreeft.com/audio/03_ecumenism.htm

  • I haven't seen "Gravity" yet, but Fr. Barron's insight seems spot on, and on a subject - technology - that I've done a lot of thinking and writing about. Although many atheists here would probably take umbrage with the implication that man needs saving in the first place, I think the subtext to that - in addition to whether technology can foster the kind of human contact and connections we build offline - is whether immersion in technology, especially social media, can make us happy and fulfilled.

    The comedian Louis CK had a great bit recently on Conan about how we tend to use smart phones to paper over moments of loneliness and despair; that we would rather text and drive and risk killing each other on the road than be alone with unpleasant thoughts. None of Louis' rant was necessarily religious - just true existential insight into man's condition as a stranger on the earth. (To me, it really reflected Pascal's "Pensees" which focuses on man's need for distraction and entertainment from that condition, and TS Eliot: "man cannot stand very much reality.") All of this can tend to sound like reactionary Luddism, but I think it's a question of perspective and identity that we all face, and doesn't demand that we deny the obvious positives of technology (like Strange Notions). The question is, can constant texting and information exchange fill that sense of emptiness that lurks in all of us? What is that emptiness that outruns the fulfillment of every natural and social need and desire, and where does it come from?

    • Andre Boillot

      "The comedian Louis CK had a great bit recently on Conan about how we tend to use smart phones to paper over moments of loneliness and despair; that we would rather text and drive and risk killing each other on the road than be alone with unpleasant thoughts. None of Lou is' rant was necessarily religious - just true existential insight into man's condition as a stranger on the earth."

      Careful mentioning Louis' observation of the things men do to distract themselves from their loneliness and despair - somebody might suggest that religion is a similar invention that we use to cope. ;)

      • Sqrat

        It struck me, while reading Barron's essay, that Christianity and many other forms of religion) and atheism represent different stages of grief according to the Kübler-Ross model. We grieve when considering our own obvious mortality, and thus grieve for ourselves. Christianity's distinctive form of grief is, in the Kübler-Ross model, a mixture of Stage 1, Denial ("After I am dead I won't really be dead!") and Stage 3, Bargaining ("In return for the mere promise that I can live forever, I'll believe 'X' and do 'Y'!"). Atheism's form of grief is Stage 5, Acceptance ("When I die, I will be no more, and that's that!").

        • GreatSilence

          Would you concede that atheists could also be in denial? That your worldview could also be bargaining? That if we are grieving (which I disagree with), that atheists could also be seen to be grieving because of their worldview? If you are not prepared to make these concessions, why not?

          • Sqrat

            While a belief that God does not exist does not automatically entail a belief that there is no such thing as a supernatural/paranormal afterlife, in my experience the two do tend to go hand in hand.

            The form that an atheist rejection of the inevitability of human mortality would be most likely to take these days is, I suppose, a belief in the possibility of transhumanism, which may be seen as a rejection of Father Barron's position that technology "can't save us." I am not aware, however, that transhumanism is actually incompatible with Christianity or Catholicism. Christians/Catholics seem almost as likely as atheists to accept the benefits of technology when those benefits are apparent. Checking into a Catholic hospital in order to receive a life-saving treatment based on advanced technology does not strike me as either a type of denial or a type of bargaining, just common sense.

      • Linda

        It's true that religion helps us cope, but rather than distract us from our problems it helps us to see them. Religion - at least Catholicism as I know it - requires us to face our unpleasant thoughts, and to recognize the loneliness and despair of others and to help them. It also asks that we meditate, which is exactly being alone with our thoughts, unpleasant though they may be; it asks us to come to the quiet.

        But I love the reference to Louis CK and saw that clip - he's hilarious and totally on the money.

  • Mikegalanx

    Profound- after science/technology fails, religion steps in to save the day- why hasn't Hollywood ever done a story like this before?

    At least we've got the spirituality down to the point where it's a hallucination of George Clooney that saves her, rather than an angel, boddhisatva or deva- or is that international marketing considerations?

    Still, no atheists in foxholes and all that.

    I'll take Jodie Foster in "Contact", please.

    • Joe

      Your right, it could have been an hallucination that saved Sandra Bullock, but then again I don't think God is above using secondary causes{hallucinations brought on by lack of oxygen} to intervene in peoples lives or deaths or whatever.

      • Mike A

        If so, we should be able to distinguish between what would happen with or without God's interference, based on our ability to model physical phenomena. I guess we can scientifically study God after all.

        • Joe

          You might run into some ethical problems if you tried to artificially create an existential crisis like in the movie.

          • Mike A

            And we don't currently have computers capable of modeling large physical systems down to the quantum level. It's evidence that people saying we can't, as a matter of principle, scientifically study the supernatural are wrong. It's not a practical proposal.

    • Lionel Nunez

      Gosh, "Contact" was such a bad movie though...is this one really worse? I mean just by providing eye candy in terms of special effects I would think this movie would have to be better....

      • Mikegalanx

        Michael Newsham:

        Not great as a movie; It was just such a relief to see something where the atheist wasn't automatically the bad person; a cold-blooded 'scientistic' scoffer who gets killed by it in the end while the religious/spiritual ones are standing around gazing open-mouthed at the awesomeness of it all.

        (These types of movies don't generally focus on any particular religion (marketing?); you're just required to have a general sense of woo.)

    • DoctorDJ

      It means George Clooney is god.

      Or at least my wife thinks so....

  • Amanda Hensen

    This was a beautiful analysis. Thank you.

  • Angelo Garrison

    Once we accept that the only message worth remembering from
    the transcendent has been lingering and spoken to us by our brothers and
    sisters across millennia, for as long as we have been speaking, singing,
    painting on cave walls and writing is: god is love, then we will at long last come
    to recognize that nothing at all stands between us and the divine and that no
    single man or woman is a path to god. We are, all of us, at unity with it, and diverge from it only through our own will. We literally can stand in our own
    way. Let us then abandon the worship of men who knew the way but could not, if they did, have ever claimed to be the way; that knew of light, but could not have ever claimed to be the light. We are, all of us, vessels for fire, sources of light. Our love of each other, lingering through eons and across leagues, manifests the light we all carry; it is the face of god. The face of god is the face of all our brothers and sisters, of whatever race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity or species they may wear on the outside. The face of god is legion and one.

    • Mike A
    • Michael Murray

      The face of god is the face of all our brothers and sisters, of whatever race, creed, sexual orientation, ethnicity or species they may wear on the outside.

      Species ? What have you got in mind here ?

  • Here we see a series of unfortunate accidents and coincidences, Kowalski is left clinging to Stone as she clings to the remains of AN abandoned Soyuz Soviet artificial satellite the last word we have a tendency to hear from him. And it's the primary hint of the movie’s non secular ambitions as he performs the supreme act of affection. He contemplates one in every of the foremost religiously charged locales on the world.