Gravity and the Search for Meaning

The top-grossing movie in the United States this month has been Gravity, a fictional account of astronauts stranded hundreds of miles above the ground and trying to survive and find a way back home. A big part of the movie’s success can be chalked up to the presence of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney. The box-office darlings play the only two characters whose faces we see on the screen.

When seen in IMAX and 3D, Gravity’s intense action yanks and pulls and makes you duck and squirm; the movie delivers all the sweaty-palm moments promised by the trailers. And the special effects have justly received rave reviews. Director Alfonso Cuarón and his team captured the look and feel of working in microgravity — not just the way people and objects bop around almost weightlessly, but even the way water and fire become spheres as they float. Of course, the producers took great factual liberties, especially by showing various objects in space as nearer to one another than they would ever be in real life (or in some cases, by showing entirely fake objects: there is no Chinese space station). And many critics have assailed the physics of the near-zero-g maneuvers depicted in the film. But such minor inaccuracies are the price we pay for interesting storytelling.

And Gravity does tell an interesting story. Many other space flicks are about the adventures of exploring space and discovering strange new worlds. But Gravity isn’t about exploring and discovering. In the guise of a space thrill ride, the movie offers a compact, neatly contained tale of rediscovery. Instead of learning about new homes for humanity, we learn anew what it means to have a home at all. (Warning: major spoilers ahead.)

After prefatory title cards describing the dangers of space and explaining that “life [there] is impossible,” the movie opens with three NASA astronauts on a spacewalk outside a shuttle inaptly named Explorer. Matt Kowalski (Clooney) is a seasoned veteran on his last space mission; his one regret is that he won’t break the record for the longest spacewalk. Newbie astronaut Ryan Stone (Bullock) is a medical engineer responsible for adding a new component of her own design to an orbiting space telescope. When disaster strikes — a fast-moving cloud of space debris shreds the shuttle and the telescope, killing their crewmates and flinging Stone out to spin alone in the vast blackness — the duo must try to find one another, stay alive, and find a new ride down to the ground.

In rapidly assessing the situation and looking for a solution, Kowalski shows he possesses the virtues — what might in an earlier era have been called the “manly virtues” — that so many of our real-life heroes have in spades: Calm courage (or “guts,” which Hemingway famously defined as “grace under pressure”). Technical knowledge. Resilience. And ultimately, self-sacrifice. In the character of Kowalski, we really have a glimpse of human excellence. Even in that position of extreme vulnerability and dependency, when every precious breath is numbered and life is only possible with the protective skin of a suit that can be pierced by a speck of debris, we can see in Kowalski the greatness of an individual’s character and the greatness of humankind as it challenges the deadly infinite void.

But it is Stone’s story that gives Gravity its moral arc. We learn that she suffered a terrible personal tragedy, the death of a young daughter. The girl did not die from a disease against which she and her doctor mother could have struggled. She fell and hit her head. It was the kind of death that can make life seem cruel — or worse: random, arbitrary, meaningless. Apparently left without family, Stone began taking long aimless car rides to get away from people and from noise. Heading out on this mission into space was the logical extension of her wish to be alone in the silence. Her daughter’s death flung her into the void of nothingness, spinning off by herself.

We all know someone like this — someone who, through some sad combination of character and choice and circumstance, drifts off into the black. Someone who would rather be alone, rather die alone, than live together with others and with the past. The night that I went to see Gravity — in fact, maybe even while I was in the movie theater — someone very close to me died. I learned about it the next afternoon. This person, a member of my family, spent many years disconnecting and detaching from the people who loved him. Many long efforts to reach out to him failed. He spun off into the nothingness alone.

Stone, though, chooses life and home. The instinct for self-preservation isn’t enough to keep a person alive in space (no more than it can keep a severely depressed soul alive here on the earth). But Stone accepts Kowalski’s help. She worries that no one will mourn for her. She notices the search for meaning to transcend the nothingness — she sees an orthodox icon on a Russian space capsule and a small Buddha statue in a Chinese capsule. Never having learned how to pray, she finds herself praying nonetheless. She finds herself longing to hear voices — to push back against the silence and aloneness that once seemed liberating but now feel oppressive — and when she cannot find anyone to speak with, she settles for voices over the radio that she doesn’t even understand. She wants to grab at whatever cords are left to pull herself back to family, community, humanity — to home.

Finding a way home, finding a way to live and to die not-alone, is not always easy or possible. It requires that we try to reach out, that we not sever every cord. And of those of us watching someone spin off into the black, it requires that we reach out, always reach out, with a voice and a hand.

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