Theology of the Movie Gravity: Evolution, Death and Teilhard de Chardin

Alone and Isolated: The Christian Concept of Hell

Alone and Isolated: The Christian Concept of Hell

Note: Spoiler Alert below for the movie Gravity

Last weekend, I finally went to see the movie Gravity, one of the few times in the last ten years that I have seen a non-childrens’ movie in a theater. As I expressed earlier, I am largely ignorant of pop culture. I am glad I did as it was simply an outstanding movie, although I would highly recommend watching it in 3D for maximum effect. 

The fantastic blog Vox Nova provided an outstanding summary of the movie as well as some of its theological implications. My post is going to expand on Vox Nova’s discussion so I encourage you to read their post here. One big caveat: it is doubtful that the writer and director Alfonso Cuarón intended for the movie to have the theological themes set forth below. These interpretations are mine, although one does not have to reach too far to see them.

The protagonist of Gravity is Dr. Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock). Stone is a mission specialist with minimal astronaut training who is on her first space shuttle mission. During her final spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope, debris from a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite has caused a chain reaction of destruction that hit Explorer. All of Explorer’s crew are dead, other than Stone and mission commander Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney), who become untethered from Explorer and tumble through space. The rest of the movie is about Stone’s attempts to make it back to Earth but the real focus is on Stone’s spiritual life in the adversity of facing death and being alone and unconnected with God and others.

The interplay between the physical and the spiritual realms of reality are profound. As the Vox Nova review says:

Gravity tries to portray what it is like to be utterly lost, to be cast adrift in a great sea of nothingness, helpless and entirely alone. In that sense, it acts as a metaphor for the absence of God, especially in terms of what Christians call the second death. No vision of hell, not even Dante, can come close to matching this kind of terror. There is a reason for that. We believe that we are made for the Creator and drawn to the Creator. Floating through the darkness of space, completely untethered, conveys the ultimate absence of God and of meaning. No wonder it feels so terrifying.”

Indeed this imagery from Gravity echos the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

“This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell.’ . . . [H]ell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.”  — (CCC 1033, 1035)

The movie then traces Stone’s path from spiritual and physical isolation to reunion with God. On the physical plane, Stone is assisted by Kowalski who rescues her and brings her to International Space Station (ISS). The ISS is damaged and that the parachute from the rescue capsule has been accidentally deployed, rendering it useless for return to Earth. However, Kowalski suggests that the Soyuz capsule can still be used to travel to the nearby Chinese space station Tiangong to retrieve another module that can take them to Earth. Out of air and maneuvering power, the two try to grab onto the ISS as they fly by. At the last moment, Stone’s leg becomes entangled in the Soyuz’s parachute cords, but Kowalski realizes that his momentum will carry them both away; over Stone’s protests, he detaches himself from the tether so that Stone might survive, and the tension in the cords pulls her back towards the ISS. As Kowalski floats away, he radios additional instructions and encouragement to Stone.

Stone enters the ISS via an airlock and she maneuvers the capsule away from the ISS, the tangled parachute tethers prevent Soyuz from separating from the station until she spacewalks outside to release the cables (one of many symbols of Stone’s prior baggage that she needs to let go of). Stone aligns the Soyuz with Tiangong but discovers the craft’s thrusters have no fuel. Despairing, Stone begins decompression of the cabin in order to commit suicide by painless hypoxia. As she begins to lose consciousness, Stone has a hallucination of Kowalski (who is presumably already dead) appearing and telling her to use the Soyuz’s landing rockets to propel the capsule toward Tiangong. The image of Kowalski (either in Stone’s imagination or from the spiritual plane) gives Stone the strength to continue.

Stone enters the Shenzhou capsule and uses it to return to Earth. The capsule lands in a lake, but an electrical fire inside the capsule forces Stone to attempt an evacuation. As water rapidly fills the cabin, Stone attempts to escape. Here is where my artistic interpretation takes over: unlike the directors’ intent or most (but not all) viewers, I actually believe the story is better if Stone drowns in the space capsule in the lake.

Stone eventually emerges (symbolically in my interpretation) from the capsule and sinks to the bottom of the lake. She then sheds the baggage of her spacesuit and ascends towards the surface, accompanying by fish, reptiles and amphibians, which are obvious evolutionary references. The evolutionary imagery continues as she exits the water on all fours before standing upright and taking her first shaky steps onto a beautiful island, which is the symbolic heaven, which is the dimension of reality waiting on the other side of this existence.

Throughout the story, the references to evolution and Christian spirituality are striking. Stone starts off alone and completely isolated, physically and spirituality. To escape from her isolation, she needs help from others, specifically Kowalski, but also all of the other diverse people and cultures that have contributed to the ISS, Russian space station and Chinese space station. Moreover, along her journey, Stone needs to shed the baggage that has built up in her soul, which is represented by objects such as the parachutes that are caught and her spacesuit. On the spiritual plane, Stone needs to discover a relationship with a transcendent Being, which is represented by the Orthodox icon of Jesus in the Russian space station and the Buddha statue in the Chinese space station. Her life journey is complete (at least under my interpretation) when she accomplishes this task and then she passes through the portal of death into the next dimension of reality upon re-entry to Earth.

The arc of Stone’s evolutionary experiences from utter isolation and despair to rejoining the community of humanity to find a union with God are the archetype of the Christian experience. Humans are meant to shed the isolation of our individual egos and, with God’s grace, evolve towards greater unity. This was one of the great insights that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin had. As Pope Benedict XVI said, citing Teilhard de Chardin:

Faith sees in Jesus the man in whom—on the biological plane—the next evolutionary leap, as it were, has been accomplished; the man in whom the breakthrough out of the limited scope of humanity, out of its monadic enclosure, has occurred; the man in whom personalization and socialization no longer exclude each other but support each other; the man in whom perfect unity—“The body of Christ”, says St. Paul, and even more pointedly “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28)—and perfect individuality are one; the man in whom humanity comes into contact with its future and in the highest extent itself becomes its future, because through him it makes contact with God himself, shares in him, and thus realizes its most intrinsic potential. From here onward faith in Christ will see the beginning of a movement in which dismembered humanity is gathered together more and more into the being of one single Adam, one single “body”—the man to come. It will see in him the movement to that future of man in which he is completely “socialized”, incorporated in one single being, but in such a way that the individual is not extinguished but brought completely to himself.

Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal; Pope Benedict XVI; Benedict; J. R. Foster; Michael J. Miller (2010-06-04). Introduction To Christianity, 2nd Edition (Kindle Locations 2873-2881). Ignatius Press. Kindle Edition.

Ultimately, Stone’s journey is a journey that all of us are called to make. We are called to step out of our own isolation, our own ego, to enter into communion with God and others, and ultimately contribute to the evolving Noosphere.

About William Ockham

I am a father of two with eclectic interests in theology, philosophy and sports. I chose the pseudonym William Ockham in honor of his contributions to philosophy, specifically Occam's Razor, and its contributions to modern scientific theory. My blog (www.teilhard.com) explores Ignatian Spirituality and the intersection of faith, science and reason through the life and writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (pictured above).
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7 Responses to Theology of the Movie Gravity: Evolution, Death and Teilhard de Chardin

  1. Ponder Anew says:

    wonderful and btw, reblogged on Ponder Anew

  2. Ponder Anew says:

    Reblogged this on Ponder Anew and commented:
    I see the ISS as the Church..

  3. Peter Clifford says:

    I am so grateful to have stumbled upon your post. While I had not seen the earlier imagery of nothingness and hell in the movie, the final scene came ever more clear the more I reflected on the movie. It seems as clear an imaging of creation as I have scene, crawling, on all fours and the final image of clawing the earth. And other than “help is on the way” no other human presence in sight. For me it seemed a rebirth!
    Thank you.

    • Peter, thank you so much for the kind words. It is nice to know that others have interpreted the ending as I did (even if the Director had a different intention :-).

      Peace,
      W. Ockham

  4. My own reaction is diametrically opposed to yours!

    The turning point of the movie is when the character of Stone is on the verge of committing suicide but instead resolves to try again. On finding the Soyuz to be out of fuel, and unable to contact mission control, she enjoys one last moment of human contact with an Inuit and his dogs and then gives up, assuming she’s “going to die today”.

    As she is drifting out of consciousness, Kowalski appears at the window (impossibly?) He lets himself in, subjecting Stone to the vacuum of space, which she survives (impossibly?) He “tells” her to use the landing rockets of the Soyuz – but also notes that Stone already knew about that. He speaks to her like a psychiatrist, echoing back to her the same thoughts she is no doubt already having. Then he disappears. So it is made very clear that this is Stone’s own subconscious at work: she had vented the oxygen so she would die quickly, and this left her in a dream-like, hallucinatory state, into which she created a feeling of connection, purpose and possibility that she so desperately needed. The memory of Kowalski’s calm, encouraging personality is *alive within her*, to the extent that the memory of him is enough to revive her will to live, to do her best, so that she can say “Whatever happens, I tried.”

    And the ending is her victory: through a combination of luck and perseverance, she gets home and (for the first time in years) regards it as home, somewhere she needed to be, to keep going. We are shown the human experience: the struggle to live and to make sense of that struggle. The most striking thing Stone says about her own emotional state as she speaks aloud to Kowalski is that she wants her daughter to know that she *didn’t give up*. She has realised that her life *isn’t* over, and she’s proud of herself for that. She isn’t going to gamble on there being some easy rewarding afterlife that she can just slip into by letting it happen! On the contrary, she’s going to fight to hold onto the only life she knows she’s got. Death would not be a victory for her at all. She rightly fears it, as a tragic waste of what she could be, if only she could survive. The idea that her daughter still exists somewhere, even if she feels certain she doesn’t want to “go” there, nevertheless works for her as a spiritual placebo, so she is glad to make use of it, to give her a feeling of connection when otherwise totally isolated.

    It’s interesting that just as we might start to think that this is yet another movie that parallels the Passion of Christ, we catch a glimpse of Buddha. The movie seems to be reminding us not to get carried away with any specific mythical/religious interpretation of what we’re seeing. A Christian might think it’s a retelling of Christian principles, but if you were a Buddhist you’d probably be seeing parallels with reincarnation, etc. Did the Chinese astronauts escape successfully? We can imagine a simultaneous story of survival from their perspective. As tempting as it is to link it to our religious perspective, ultimately that would obscure the story, which is about being alive, and *avoiding* being dead.

  5. Pingback: 2013 Reflections on Blogging (Part I): Country Data and Top Posts | Teilhard de Chardin

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