“Better to illuminate than merely to shine, to deliver to others contemplated truths than merely to contemplate.” ~ St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 188 a. 6 co.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Mission Abort: A Way of Interpreting "Gravity"

Pulled from 2013 archives for DVD release (Feb. 25):  After you see the movie, please watch this excellent behind-the-scenes featurette which I just found this month. I'm happy to be partially vindicated!


* My Mumford & Sons/Arcade Fire post will have to wait because I must write this now, spoilers and all.

Maybe it's because I was profoundly moved by the story of Gianna Jessen a few years ago. Maybe it's because I read "Angel in the Waters" to my son a thousand times when I was pregnant with his brother last year. Maybe it's because I untangled a Terrence Malick movie a few days ago. Maybe it's because I just talked to my mother who is praying outside an abortion clinic every single day this month. But apparently, I saw a different movie last night than everyone else. I thought that Gravity, a film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that is being hailed as a cinematic masterpiecewas about a failed abortion. Then I went home and did some Googling and found that no one else has seen it this way. Well, I've never let that stop me before, so here we go.

Before I saw this movie, a friend told me that it is "very pro-life" and that I would "get it." I expected that it would deal with end of life issues so I was prepared for a meditation on euthanasia. But as soon as I saw Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) curl up in the fetal position and go to sleep, I realized that we were inside a womb. Then I considered that every pregnancy magazine, 3-D ultrasound photo, and "inside the womb" YouTube video I have ever seen looked remarkably like this movie: the swimming motion, the umbilical cords everywhere, the parachute as a placenta...more and more keep occurring to me as I write this. Some reviewers have pointed out some of these elements, and the filmmaker himself, Alfonso Cuarón, says that the film is about rebirth and evolution. But why all this distress in the womb, the safest place on earth?

Then, as I saw all that debris flying at the characters, I thought it looked like a spray of saline. And Matt Kowalski (Clooney) being pulled away from Dr. Stone seemed caught in a vacuum hose. And all of the huge pointed objects hurling at them were like the other tools used to procure abortions. I remembered my mom telling me about the film "Silent Scream" as I thought about the opening text of Gravity which tells us that there is no sound in space. Even Bullock's character's name, Stone, might as well be Clump Of Cells. Her first name, Ryan, is ambiguously gendered, just as we're usually not sure of the baby's sex until he or she is born. Piecing this together, outer space has become the inner sanctum of a woman who wishes to terminate her pregnancy, thus rendering the environment inhospitable. This realization gave new weight to the other piece of opening text, "Life in space is impossible."

Let me pause to make something clear: I'm not claiming that the filmmaker had all of this in mind, consciously anyway. One of the main points of this blog is that it gives me a place to work out the idea that our human aesthetic and moral sensitivities, when poured out sincerely in art, often echo God because we are made in his image and likeness. I think there are other ways of reading the moviesome of which seem quite complementaryand I hope moviegoers will take with them what they already have and leave with something more. Also, I'm not claiming that this is an exact allegory, so not all of the elements have to fit into the vision perfectly. I just see enough evidence to make a substantial claim. That said, let's keep going.

Think about the moment when Dr. Stone says she is worried that no one will pray for her soul. This is of course a deeply moving statement within the context of the film, but with this subtext we can imagine it as a cry of the unborn. She also says that she has no one on Earth looking up at her, and that she has never prayed because she has never been taught. It is almost as if she has never lived in the outside world at all. Seen in this way, the film works like a thought experiment for those people who choose not to see the fetus as a human being. What if the unwanted life inside were a fully formed adult? What if we could see her? What if she were beautiful and talentedan Oscar-winner, even? Think of the potential of that human life. One year at the March for Life in Washington, I held a sign that read "Equal Rights for Unborn Women" with a picture of the female symbol ♀ with another one (only tiny) floating inside the circle. This movie underscores all of the posters and prayers offered up by the marching masses each January.

Matt Kowalski became the guardian angel for the baby inside the womb. (If you haven't seen and read this book, I highly recommend it.) Matt is clearly some kind of supernatural or paranormal entity the last time that we see him. As Ryan loses oxygen and is dying, he comes to the rescueto light, to guard, to rule, and to guide, as the prayer says. He tells her about the world on the other side, just like the angel in the book. But the difference is that she may choose whether to die or go on struggling to survive. This reminds me of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity when he talks about the crisis of birth:
Until we rise and follow Christ we are still parts of Nature, still in the womb of our great mother. Her pregnancy has been long and painful and anxious, but it has reached its climax. The great moment has come. Everything is ready. The Doctor has arrived. Will the birth "go off all right"? But of course it differs from an ordinary birth in one important respect. In an ordinary birth the baby has not much choice: here it has. I wonder what an ordinary baby would do if it had the choice. It might prefer to stay in the dark and warmth and safety of the womb. For of course it would think the womb meant safety. That would be just where it was wrong; for if it stays there it will die.
 Dr. Stone chooses to live. She is then born, and thus reborn. As her pod enters the Earth's atmosphere it looks like a head moving into the birth canal. The scene of reentry made me weep heavily with both memory and anticipation. I recalled vividly the moment when my son was crowningthe ring of fire, it is so aptly called by we mothers who've experience natural child birth. Ryan says, "Houston, I'm either gong to make down in one piece, or I'm gonna burn up in 10 minutes; either way, no harm no foul." Not the best bit of dialogue ever but it did remind me of how I felt pushing out a 9 pound baby: "I might die right now." She's screaming, I'm screaming (into my scarf), babies everywhere being born right now screamingwhat a shocking and terrible and bizarre way we come into the world. And then, suddenly, the plunge into the water. I didn't think I could take any more obstacles at that point, but birth is that way, too. Will the baby be able to breath on its own? Will the cord be wrapped around its neck? Will the heart rate plummet or skyrocket? Then, at last, she surfaces and takes in that precious oxygen. I half-expected a giant bulb syringe to appear and clear away the mucous as she coughs and sputters. Then, with the weakness of a newborn, she drags herself onto the shore. She grips the earth and releases it like Mary in The Passion delivering her Son into His Father's Kingdom. She presses her forehead to the ground, and whispers, "Thank you," like all of the thousands of unwanted babies who are unintentionally and despite all odds born alive.

The film runs 91 minutes, like 9 months plus 1 year as we get to witness not only the birth but the first breath, first pushup, first crawl and first step. I had the privilege of attending it with a dear friend who is five-months pregnant. There just a foot away from me was the real thing teeming within. A 3-D ultrasound could have shown us just how that baby reacted to all of those loud noises, just as the 3-D photography heightened our own experience of the movie. What an age we live in.

It's worth pointing out that this director also made the film, Children of Men, which also features a profound commentary on pregnancy and hope. The director of photography for that film and this one also made The Tree of Life, a soul-stirring beauty-fest on all levels. May God grant that these people come into the fullness of faith, and along with them, many from the viewing audience.

If you'd like a few more essays with religious interpretations of this movie, you might enjoy this from Patheos, this from Barbara Nicolosi (who first got me excited to see this movie), and this from Fr. Barron. 

What do you think? Can you fit any of the other scenes or images from the film into this framework? Feel free to argue with me if you think I'm dead wrong or crazy. That's what I'm here for. 


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    1. Interesting that the director of photography from the Tree of Life was in on this, since I also saw some parallels between these two films. Both deal with the loss of a child, both show the choice to live in the face of tragedy, and and both show the moment of resolution in handing the child over to supernatural protection.


    2. Ah, yes. Thank you for pointing out these parallels, Catherine! The Tree of Life is probably my favorite movie ever.

  2. Thank you so much for this beautiful analysis! I saw Gravity a few days ago and I have been trying to untangle all of the stunning and symbolic parts of the film ever since. I had the inkling that the film could be interpreted as pro-life, but on my own I was unable to really delve into all of the ways that this theme is woven through the narrative. I really loved the way you took a look at the moment when Dr. Stone says she is worried that no one will pray for her soul. Those are some very precious gems of truth! Thank you so much!

  3. Wow, I haven't seen the movie but from your description I'm really looking forward to it. I find it so interesting when artists, writers, etc. who don't express a faith produce work that still have essential messages only found through the truth of belief. Or in at the very least, their work projects a deeper understanding of theological truths that appear almost subconsciously in the art. Really enjoy your work Kathryn!

    1. Hi Christy! Thanks for stopping over here. I just discovered your blog due to your comment and it looks terrific. So glad to find another believer in what we might call "unintentional Catholicism". It's one of my favorite things to think about. :)

  4. At a conference this weekend, I learned that the Italian word "gravidanza" means pregnancy.

    1. Ah! I love it! A friend told me that "gravida" is used by doctors/midwives in English too, to mean a pregnant woman.

  5. Fr. Robert Barron had a commentary about the Gospel parable about the pharisee and the publican in which he speaks about the word religion having its origins in "re ligare" which means to bound back to. I immediately thought about this movie and all the images of being bound to with cords. Not being bound is deadly. It made me think about the fact that we need to be "grounded" by our connection to God first and then to others. Connections which seem to limit us, save us. Same with Gravity! It appears as a limitation to our flight and movement, but what a gift it is when one considers the alternative!
    As for your insights about pregnancy and abortion, Kathryn, I'm still reeling from this way of looking at the movie. I am especially moved by the idea of the sadness of having no one remember her or mourn her passing. But of course the tear that floats up and away is taken as a prayer. "Could a mother forget her baby or a woman the child within her womb? But even if these forget, I will never forget you. I have carved you on the palm of my hand." Not one is forgotten!

  6. Wow. I had lots of thoughts about this movie and its meaning, but the childbirth angle never crossed the radar. Now that it has, I'm going to give it some time to percolate...or "gestate" as it were.

    Thanks for sharing your insights. I'm sure I'll have your thoughtful take in mind when I go see it again with my kids this weekend.

    1. Your reflections came to mind again yesterday afternoon at Mass. The first reading, from Romans, reads in part:

      We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now;
      and not only that, but we ourselves,
      who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
      we also groan within ourselves
      as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

      For in hope we were saved.
      Now hope that sees for itself is not hope.
      For who hopes for what one sees?
      But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance.

    2. Thank you so much, Rick. Hope is certainly a key element. The Asian man singing a lullaby inspires hope since his is the first voice Dr. Stone hears in what feels like an eternity, and then Kowalski kindles it further with his words of encouragement. In hope, she is saved.

      The adoption part is particularly interesting, because in the case of an attempted abortion, we can expect that the birth mother will abandon the baby (as most do) thus leaving him or her to be adopted. The hope for adoption--the belief that she is not forgotten (as John Nagy said), that she is wanted, that she is willed, that she has something to live for--is what carries her through.

  7. I really wanted to come here to comment - thank you for sharing all you did. Whether it was meant to deal with abortion I'm less sure, but I think you are absolutely right the imagery is connected to pregnancy and birth, and now I am sure the movie makers were even aware of this. I think the clincher someone pointed here is the name Gravity - yes gravid to be pregnant. Perhaps you are right though even more with the debris flying at them. But regardless, Ryan Stone certainly faces and struggles with loss, great difficulty, and seeming hopelessness. She even wants to die. I read Angel in the Waters at a friend's wedding. Strangely I was inspired to write a kids book I still have not and now you have given me new inspiration to do that because there is a connection. They say what is too sublime seek not. I will not try to explain it but there is a connection, I believe even 2001 space odyssey has an image of a fetus in the womb connected to something in space. Our universe, with all it's mystery, God created life within it. Perhaps we feel small or insignificant. He went to unfathomable lengths for us.

    1. So glad I inspired you to get back to your children's book! And yes, there is definitely a connection to 2001.

  8. This is an awesome review! I do think that many of the parallelisms you mention were actually made on purpose. Alfonso Cuarón, I am sure, had a Roman Catholic upbringing. On the other hand, looking at his previous movies, he was not a saint either.

    Laus Deo!!