This month’s Fourth Friday Film Forum: Gravity.

From the very start of the film Gravity you are aware of two elements of space that we probably know but don’t often think about: 1) the sheer size of outer space and, by extension, the universe, and 2) the utter silence of space. Both of these elements are brought to vivid expression by filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón and serve to elicit one emotional reaction in particular: loneliness. That sense that you are so small as to be insignificant; so absolutely irrelevant in the larger scheme of things; so tiny and powerless in the face of the monumental challenges of life; so utterly disconnected from others that even those you know and love, when you think about it, are always mysterious, just beyond your reach.

I want to talk a bit about the plot of the film, and there’s no way to do that without revealing some of its twists and turns. So if you want to avoid any spoilers, you might want to read no further than this paragraph. Having said that, however, I’ll also say that most of the spoilers are revealed in the previews. That is, the heart of this movie is far less about what happens than it is about how the characters – or really, the main character, Ryan Stone (played by Sandra Bullock) – cope with what happens. With that in mind, you can decide whether or not what you want to read further. ☺

Cuarón, who also wrote the film with his son, Jonas, takes as his premise the increasing danger of space debris called the Kessler syndrome, where debris from defunct and discarded satellites and rockets increasingly collides with functioning satellites, creating only more debris which poses greater hazards and so on and so on until there may be a time when it is no longer possible to launch rockets safely into deep space. So the main characters are on a routine space mission when a spray of such debris from a crashed satellite comes their way, wreaking havoc with the mission and ultimately leaving Ryan Stone and Matt Kowalski (played by George Clooney) to fend for themselves.

And then it gets worse. When Kowalski, realizing that they can’t both survive and that she is in the best position to do so, sacrifices himself. And suddenly Stone is alone, all alone, and given the immensity of the challenges facing her, she succumbs to the all-too-imaginable temptation to give in, stop trying, and die quickly and quietly through a loss of oxygen.

She does not die, of course, and knowing that doesn’t diminish the drama of the film at all. Again, it’s not what happens that matters but how it happens and how Stone copes. At her low point, she has an epiphany, even a revelation, experienced as a hallucination that reminds her of crucial information but, more importantly, gives her again a desire to live. These scenes are among the most dramatic and touching.

Two elements of this part of the film particularly caught my attention. First, just before the epiphany, she is able to tune in to what I gather is a Chinese short-wave radio operator and she hears first his dog barking and then his baby daughter babbling. While initially it gives her a sense of company, that fades into a deeper loneliness as she recalls her own lost child. She asks her Chinese conversation partner – knowing that she can’t understand him and he can’t understand her – whether he would pray for her. She would pray for herself, she says, except that no one taught her to. Second, just a few moments later and after her hallucination and epiphany, she asks her colleague Matt, who has likely just died, to carry a message to her daughter.

Both scenes reminded me that no matter how secular we may be or how scientific our worldview, at moments of extremity we crave a deeper sense of meaning and purpose. This isn’t, I think, a foxhole conversation but rather evidence that most of us are not satisfied with only the material dimensions of our lives and sense that there is something more, something spiritual that imbues all of life.

But have we prepared each other to detect that? Have we taught each other, in other words, to pray, to share, to connect?

Ultimately, Ryan Stone decides that her desire for life is stronger than her loneliness. But that’s not quite right. It’s not simply a desire to live. It’s a desire to be the kind of person that her daughter would be proud of, to be someone worthy of the sacrifice her colleague made. She discovers, even in the loneliest and lowest moment of her life, that she is not alone. She is connected, even — and at this moment especially — with those who have already died, and through that connection with all others.

The film starts by reminding us of statistics about how inhospitable space is to life. There is no heat, no sound, no oxygen, and we need all of these. But we also need each other. And that, as it turns out, proves as important, if not more, than all the rest.

It’s a fine film — one worth seeing (in 3D if possible) — so I’ll put the preview below, in case you’re interested.

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