"Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind."
Albert Einstein never aligned himself with a particular religion, nor would he tolerate the label of “atheist.” His spiritual views were cut from the Spinoza cloth of pantheism, a belief that God and the Universe are identical. "If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it,” Einstein wrote in a 1954 letter.
As science and religion battle for dominance in world ideology — no, it's not just a Texas thing — pantheism took one giant leap forward this weekend with Alfonso Cuarón's “Gravity" (read our full review here). The “Children of Men” director's race-against-time drama is being lauded by critics for its stripped down approach to thematics and devotion to thriller mechanics (David Denby of The New Yorker sums up the thinking perfectly, saying, “'Gravity' is not a film of ideas, like Kubrick’s techno-mystical “2001,” but it’s an overwhelming physical experience”). But behind the heart-pounding CG-fest are fundamental questions painted as broadly as the action. “Gravity” is a movie about empowerment through belief, the idea that problems need to be solved with both scientific logic and blind faith. As Cuarón puts Sandra Bullock through the wringer, he shows us the quickest way to death is rigid thinking. Einstein would be proud.
This week, celebrated physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson took “Gravity” to task for being scientifically unsound. Yet Cuarón's goal isn't accuracy — it's familiarity. As people with eyes and ears, we know NASA astronauts, we know The Hubble, we know the International Space Station, we know the big blue planet floating behind the characters. It's as real as a movie can be. So are the characters; Cuarón avoids giving Bullock's Dr. Ryan Stone any identifiable quirks because she needs to be universally relatable. And let's face it: If we were all floating 940,000 miles above the Earth's surface, we would all be a wee bit unsettled.
Cuarón convinces us that, despite the daunting task of evading a maelstrom of satellite debris, Stone and George Clooney's Matt Kowalski can prevail by considering science. The solutions may not be sound when scrutinized, but as the duo propel themselves through microgravity with a serious of tethered tugs and acrobatic moves, it's clear a lifetime of knowledge is aiding them in their quest.
WARNING: The rest of this article candidly discusses the full plot of "Gravity".
It's in a downbeat from their escape where we learn what separates Kowalski from Stone. Chitchat leads to a revelation: Stone's daughter died in an accident at the playground, and now the bio-medical engineer considers herself alone in the world. Even if she survives the catastrophe, there's no one to greet her at home. Unknowingly, Stone is drifting towards nihilism. She sees herself as serving no purpose, so commits herself wholly to work. When even Stone's job explodes in her face, she can't muster up her years of training, can't call upon the logic of science, and so she drifts away into the dark, hopeless space.
Kowalski becomes a symbol of perseverance for Stone. He's a scientist who relies on faith, and is informed by the past. Even as he manages astronauts tinkering with the Hubble, he's bestowing the team and Houston with tales of the old days. They're played like throwaway jokes, but they identify Kowalski as a humanist who values his personal connections and his accomplishments. He's enjoyed a full life on Earth, so if he perishes in the accident or makes it out unscathed, he doesn't have to worry. As we see him use every blast of air in his jet pack or instruct Stone on how to retrieve the ISS' escape pod, his solutions are empowered by an ability to balk at danger and a trust in the universe. Because maybe something comes next. Or maybe it doesn't.
After Kowalski exits the picture, we watch the heavens shape Stone into a new person. Cuarón treats her return to Earth like a birth — we see the scientist in the fetal position, incubating in the ISS and preparing to go home. But if Stone relied entirely on the logical half of human instincts, she would never have made it back. So first, the universe instills her with spirituality and an empathy for all of humanity. She's not “born again” the way Christianity has adopted the term, she's being reset to zero, reinstated with potential that every person has when they first “arrive” on the planet.
Tunnel vision nearly gets the best of Stone. She loses faith after losing Kowalski, turning to button-mashing and hand guides for answers. When all appears to be lost, she throws in the towel. Painless suicide becomes the best alternative. And then she looks inward to discover understanding.
Despite easing her stress and leading her down a road to death, the voice of the non-English speaking man (who apparently is Aningaaq, an Inuit ice-fisherman in Greenland, and we'll see more of him in a short film by Cuarón's son) is the beginning of Stone's spiritual awakening. Like Kowalski, Stone needs human connection to survive. She finds hope in Aningaaq's voice. Whether Kowalski's eventual reentrance is a hallucination or an actual visit of a spirit from the great beyond is inconsequential. In the fabric of pantheism, it's the same. Stone doesn't need to kill herself to become closer to her daughter, praying to God there's an afterlife where they both can live. Her daughter exists as part of her memories, as part of the universe. Her daughter is as real as Aningaaq. Cuarón signifies totality as the unrestrained human experience, as an individual, as a companion to others, as a being existing in the beautiful, terrifying, infinite universe.
The epiphany keeps Stone hanging on. There's no need to pray or wait for the deus ex machina. It won't come. God won't provide, “Gravity” tells us, but a human can act as their own maker. Faith can be fuel. So can a fire extinguisher. Stone knows how the extinguisher works, how the pressure could get her to the Chinese space station, but only now with raw, human instincts — spiritually “reborn” — can she cross the way. 2001: A Space Odyssey comparisons become apt; Stone isn't “Star Child,” but she's the perfected form of humanity after years of degredation. Fresh faced and ready to live.
When Stone crashes on Earth and emerges from the water, Cuarón earns his right to hit us over the head with iconography. This is a snapshot of evolution, humanity in its purest form. It's where pantheism leaves the door open to ideas of intelligent design and scientific fact living as one intertwined entity. No matter where the origins of life began, humanity arose from the Earth and their will is entirely in their own hands. Human potential has nothing to do with religious theory, and that's “Gravity's” proclamation. Attempting to trounce evolution theory with creationism is pointless. What matters is a human standing on two feet ready to connect with the rest of the world and solve “Godly” problems. “Gravity” shows us anything is possible when science and faith meet — a theme as grand as they come.