From the moment the lights go down, the movie “Gravity” pulls viewers into the depths of space. Against a black screen, we see a few basic, terrifying facts about just how dangerous it is for those brave few souls who dare to be astronauts: that temperatures in space can veer wildly from minus 260 to more than 150 degrees, that there is no sound, and that there is no oxygen.
In other words, human life is impossible to sustain without the most precise safety measures. And over the next 90 minutes, we’ll see just how badly a space mission can go wrong, as two astronauts – Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) – endure the results of a pummeling assault of satellite debris from a Russian satellite that was accidentally blown to bits by a military exercise gone awry.
That destroyed satellite set off a chain reaction in which the initial debris slammed into other satellites, unleashing a devastating stream of giant chunks of metal hurtling at 220,000 mph. Stone and Kowalski barely manage to survive and avoid floating helplessly into space thanks to getting tangled in tether cords attached to the now-hopelessly damaged satellite they had been repairing.
Now they have to figure out how to use jet packs to reach their larger spacecraft before Stone’s oxygen runs out, only to find that the parachute on that pod has already been deployed, ruining their chance to safely return to earth on it.
SPOILER ALERT: At that moment, Kowalski is nearly knocked into space by another mishap, with Stone holding onto him by one hand and a tether cord. Kowalski tells her if she doesn’t release him, they’ll both die, and so it is that he sacrifices himself into certain death among the stars. Now Stone is left to fend for herself, using every ounce of her physical, emotional, mental and ultimately spiritual strength if she is to survive an ever-worsening series of challenges to come. END SPOILER.
Yes, you read right. “Gravity” could have been just an empty thriller on the order of “Armageddon,” with flashy special effects masking an utterly empty story devoid of relatable characters and human emotion. But in the hands of master Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”), who directs the film from a screenplay he co-wrote with his son Jonas, “Gravity” becomes a much deeper and richer experience in which the audience feels they are present with Stone for every harrowing aspect of her crisis.
The magic of the movie lies not in its stellar special effects, which are a shoo-in to sweep the technical Oscars, but in the fact that Cuaron manages to make viewers care even more about the inner space that Kowalski and especially Stone must contend with. When we first see them floating 600 kilometers above earth, trying to repair a damaged satellite, space is an inky-black and beautiful environment offering a cocoon of silent peace, and the colleagues engage in glib surface-level patter.
But once they realize their lives hang in the balance, the duo start revealing the hidden pain of their earthly lives. Kowalski is divorced because he learned his wife cheated on him during a prior six-week space mission, while Bullock’s only daughter died at the age of four in a freak playground accident.
Thus they are loners bound together by the need to survive, with Kowalski raising the sad prospect that there may be no one on earth to mourn either of them if they died. That frightening fact adds emotional resonance as we follow Stone through what appear to be the five stages of death, from grief and bargaining to acceptance.
But “Gravity” is not a film without hope. Rather, it is a story of transformation and transcendence, as this coldly calculating woman of science acknowledges that she never learned how to pray, only to prove true the adage that there are no atheists in foxholes.
That spiritual battle gives “Gravity” an added powerful kick for believers, continuing what appears to be a trend in recent weeks of mainstream Hollywood movies featuring main characters who rely on their faith to endure tremendous challenges. “Prisoners” features Hugh Jackman as a Catholic family man who loses some but not all of his moral bearings while holding captive the man he believes kidnapped his daughter, while “Don Jon” features Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a younger Catholic playboy fighting off a porn addiction while trying to value true love.
Make no mistake, both “Prisoners” and “Don Jon” are very “hard-R” movies, with “Prisoners” taking viewers on perhaps the most disturbing journey of any quality film since “Seven” nearly 20 years ago, and “Don Jon” packing its opening minutes and sporadic moments later in the film with montages that allude strongly to the destructive smut he’s allowing to pollute his mind and spirit. But both those movies’ lead characters absolutely maintain or strengthen their faith along the way, giving audiences that can handle some morally questionable material an ultimately positive experience, and more importantly, giving positive images of faith-filled men to audiences that would normally avoid preachy movies like the plague.
“Gravity” takes that kind of spiritual journey to an even higher level without having any immoral content to worry about. Its PG-13 rating stems almost entirely from its harrowing stream of perilous moments, with no sex or nudity and language limited to Stone saying one F word and muttering a stream of “Oh God!”s at a couple points of crisis.
But let’s face it, it would be unrealistic and almost impossible for any human being in the same situation to not say exactly the same things, so the language here is not exploitative and barely even noticeable. This may be too intense for kids under ages 10 to 12, but teens and adults are going to love it.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.