Director Alfonso Cuaron’s movie, "Gravity," isn’t just an Oscar-winning blockbuster—it’s also a battleground for the early 21st Century “God Wars” in which the concept of providence is used as a weapon against the “New Atheist” viewpoints popularized by Richard Dawkins and others.
(Warning: the following paragraphs contain spoilers.)
As many have acknowledged, "Gravity" features astronaut Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) in two parallel journeys: a physical journey back to earth, and a spiritual rebirth in which she acknowledges God’s guidance.
In the form of a survival narrative, a disaster forces Stone and comrade Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) to hopscotch spacecrafts in search of an undamaged escape pod, and although Kowalski dies, Stone manages to return unharmed.
Concurrently, in the parallel and primary narrative of "rebirth as a possible outcome of adversity" (to use Cuaron's words), the emotionally remote Stone works through the death of her young daughter. In what film critic Stephanie Zacharek calls “as apt and unsentimental a metaphor for prayer as I can think of,” Kowalski has to persuade Stone to keep talking during a communications blackout with Houston mission control since “if someone is listening they might just save your life.” After the two astronauts are separated, Stone in a desperate moment confesses her inability to pray since “no one ever taught me how,” but a hallucination of the dead Kowalski ends her reticence and she pours out messages for her daughter. When, finally, she is back on earth, she says a single “Thank you” as the very last words of the film.
This parallel narrative rebuts popular arguments that the existence of evil prove that there is no God. As Dawkins has written in his book, The God Delusion, attempts to “justify suffering in a world run by God” are “beyond satire.”
For Cuaron, however, the greatest unexpected gift trumps the worst unexpected evil. “Your kid died, doesn’t get any rougher than that,” the dead Kowalski tells Stone in her hallucination. But Stone’s improbable return to earth finds her renewed spiritually and thankful for her life.
Dawkins has also written that evolution by natural selection disproves the need for God's intervention and thus his existence.
Cuaron would agree on the science—but the fact that anything exists at all is again an unexpected gift linked to God. After endless disorienting shots of Zero-G, Stone and the viewer return to transfigured perception. Aquatic life wondrously mimics space: a frog swims across the movie screen as if weightless, and strands of seaweed wave like netting caught on the International Space Station (ISS). On shore, insects buzz and birds call—their sounds filling what had been a soundless void.
As the script specifies, Stone “drags herself from the water, like the first amphibious life form crawling out of the primordial soup onto land.” After she stands, she looks around, and then, as the music swells in a major key, she tilts her head upward. The camera-shot from below emphasizes Stone staring into the heavens. Yes, evolution exists, Cuaron communicates, but when the odd phenomenon of life is comprehended by the life-form that has become sentient, the fact that there is life at all confirms the activity of a benevolent God.
As an aside, Cuaron also grapples with the age-old, skeptical observation that human beings have multiple and contradictory conceptions of the divine. In Dawkin’s formulation, “We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of just go one god further.”
The ISS has an icon of St. Christopher, while the Chinese station has a small statue of the Buddha. In contrast, the American space shuttle has a figurine of the cartoon character, “Marvin the Martian," and the ISS has a bug-eyed alien doll. Some might equate God with the fictional extraterrestrials but, for Cuaron, it is the icon of St. Christopher and the small Buddha that point to and try to represent something real, while the Marvin figurine and the alien doll do not. Of all people, who better than an astronaut to understand that there is not a physical God sitting up somewhere in the sky? Instead, Stone has chosen to look somewhere rather than nowhere at all, to search and to grasp rather than do nothing.
The differences between Cuaron and Dawkins are many. Only time and surveys will show who brought more people to their side.
Cuaron, Alfonso; and Jonas Cuaron. Gravity: A Space Suspense in 3D screenplay. Artisan Gold Limited, May 29, 2012.http://www.warnerbros2013.com/PDF/gravity_20131219.PDF.
Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
Roper, Caitlin. "Why Gravity Director Alfonso Cuaron Will Never Make a Space Movie Again." Interview with Alfonso Cuaron. Wired, October 1, 2013.http://wired.com/underwire/2013/10/center_of_gravity/.
Zacharek, Stephanie. "One Giant Leap: Gravity Is a Thrilling Breakthrough." Review of "Gravity." Village Voice, October 2, 2013. http://www.villagevoice.com/2013-10-02/film/gravity/.
Image Credit: magann / bickstockphoto.com.
Author, David Mihalyfy, is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School and an Instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His primary research interest is the history of Biblical interpretation. He was a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Marty Center.