Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Gravity - awe, oxygen and rebirth


Director: Alfonso Cuarón, 2013 (PG-13)

What are the two main things we take for granted each day that have a major impact on life on Earth? Oxygen and gravity. We breathe in thousands of times a day rarely giving a second thought to the influx of oxygen that carries with it the sustenance of life. And gravity keeps our feet firmly planted on terra firma. But in Alfonso Cuaron’s (Children of Men) latest thriller, both are lacking leading to life-threatening circumstances.

The film opens with a long pan of space, silent, stark, stars twinkling in the far distance, earth appearing below. Three astronauts appear, in space. One, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side) is working on the Hubble telescope, trying to fix a defective comms board. Another is goofing off. The third, Kowalski (George Clooney, The Descendants), is space-walking trying to break the record. All seems calm, until the voice of mission control (Ed Harris, Apollo 13) warns them of space debris hurtling at them faster than a speeding bullet. Before they can return to the space shuttle, disaster has found them.  One dead, one floating, Ryan finds herself literally cut off and cast adrift in space. Untethered, she has no way to control her motion, and finds herself spinning crazily around and around, disorienting her. To make matters worse, her oxygen levels fall dangerously low and her panicked breathing sucks it lower and lower.

With this start, the movie falls into the suspense genre of danger following on danger. Only two characters fill the screen. Even these could not really be called characters, as we learn little about them or their backstory. Kowalski is the veteran spaceman, on his last mission always ready with a quick quip (“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission.” Or, “Well, it reminds me of a story,” one no doubt he has told time and time again.) Stone is on her first mission, a rookie experiencing space-sickness and claustrophobic fear. All we learn of her is a tragedy that has left her hopeless and relationless, driven only by her work. She has no one who cares about her.

What makes Gravity work are the stunning visuals. This movie must be seen in 3D on the big screen. Although much of it has been created with cgi, it still amazes. The cinematography captures the vastness of space while juxtaposing with the confines of a constricting spacesuit. Cuoron switches between third-person camerawork, letting us look on, and first-person camerawork, when the camera slowly goes inside Stone’s helmet. We see from her vantage point, including the slightly misted visor as her panic increases.

This brings me to the first of two theological points of contact with this film. The camerawork conveys the awesomeness of space, its infinitude, and in contrast the smallness of man. It brings to mind the words of David the Psalmist: “what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (Psa. 8:4). Or as the prophet Isaiah puts it, “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass” (Isa. 40:6-7). In contrast, God is infinite, and cannot be contained: “The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you” (1 Kings 8:27). If space is big, God is bigger.

Bullock carries the film. Facing danger in each scene, she communicates her feelings in body and facial moves, rather than dialogue. Clooney acts as support rather than lead here. And she pulls it off in perhaps her strongest performance yet.

At one point, in a pivotal scene, Stone is inside a ship alone. She turns the lights down and though she now has oxygen, dials the oxygen down to a deadly low level. Metaphorically, she is turning out her own lights. Her hope has gone. She wants a quiet, cozy descent into death. For her gravity and oxygen are gone. She has cried out to herself that no one on earth remains to pray for her soul, and even she cannot pray as no one ever taught her how. But a vision springs to mind to bring her hope.

Cuaron clearly has rebirth in mind. Through the trials of adversity, Stone’s hopeless and lack of life are burned away until she is reborn. Even his visuals bring this out. One scene has Stone relaxing in zero-gravity in a fetal-like position, clad only in her space underwear. This picture portends her later change. Then her awakening brings with it hope, a hope that she might return to earth. The journey, difficult and dangerous, with no friendly voices to help her on, brings with it a literal burning away of the dross. All that is left is life, primordial. Until the very last scene shows Stone crawling out of the sea, clawing her way across the sandy-mud, until she has the strength to stand: alive. She has been reborn. Cuaron’s visuals communicate a rebirth pointing strongly to evolutionary beginnings.

Rebirth is the second point of intersection. Stone was dead inside even while she was alive in space. She had no hope. Such a life holds only despair. But God knows that hope is the anchor that we humans need (Heb. 6:19). And he gives us this hope in the person of Jesus (2 Cor. 1:10). God knows that we live as dead men and women (Eph. 2:1), walking and talking but cut off from the source of life and hope. We, like Stone, need a rebirth, an emergence to true life. And it comes once more in the person of Jesus. If we receive him (Jn. 1:12) and follow him (Matt. 4;19) we will rise from the dead, to stand up in new life.

Gravity has been panned by some critics as slow and pondering, with poor characters and dialogue. They certainly have the right to their opinions. But despite the overt and manipulative message, I felt the wonder of space and the grave dread of impending death. Stone is no everyman (or everywoman). She is no Ripley-like heroine. But her rebirth from hopelessness is an experience that all can savor if they cast off the heavy gravity of sin and its lack of oxygen, and experience the freeing breath of life that comes from Jesus.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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