Gravity: Spiritual, but Not Religious 15 April 2014

Gravity Sandra BullockThe trailer to the movie Gravity, set to the music of Avro Part’s beautifully minimalistic Spiegel Im Spiegel, conveyed the setting and context for the blockbuster release. Gravity is a science fiction film that was less fiction than most, following our protagonist Sandra Bullock as she gets lost in the vastness of space.

It was released in cinemas in Autumn 2013 and garnered positive reviews from the critics. Gravity was a film that depicted space travel with utmost verisimilitude, and perhaps put 3D technology to the best use yet. The film was interspersed with breath-taking shots of Earth and zero-gravity scenes that seemed absolutely natural.

The plot is simple. Sandra Bullock plays Dr Ryan Stone, a mission specialist upon a fictitious routine space flight, accompanied by seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). A Russian missile strike to destroy an old satellite unwittingly creates a debris storm, destroying more satellites and space stations in its wake and becoming increasingly more powerful as it sweeps across the lower orbit of the globe. The debris storm leaves Dr Stone stranded and desperately trying to find a way back to Earth with her own shuttle destroyed. Unlike many science fiction films, which in their desire to overcome the barrier of space travel often make space feel like a hop across the road, Gravity goes to great lengths to emphasise how absolutely vast space is. The large panning shots leave the viewer with a vague of agoraphobia – a feeling only intensified by the sudden changes in tone to cramped, small and claustrophobic environments. 

The filmmaking is superb, the directing is flawless, Clooney and Bullock both shine as the experienced and capable actors they are. The entire movie is a beautifully sculpted piece of art, where every sound (or lack of it) is carefully choreographed with the visual shots.

Gravity-buddhaMany commentators noted the themes of faith in the movie. Clooney references the beauty of the sun reflecting off the Ganges. Images of Jesus Christ and Buddha appear too, the camera hovering over them to ensure the movie-goers don’t miss them. Dr Stone holds a vague sense of belief and spirituality, talking of angels and her deceased child. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment she offers a prayer of sorts, admitting she ‘was never taught’ how to pray.

There are several scenes of re-birth in the movie, punctuated by the destructive force of the debris storm which reaches Dr Stone every 90 minutes. Those familiar with Hindu traditions, Buddhism and Jainism will recognise the samsara – the continuing wheel of life and death. In one scene, she is surrounded by warm light as she curls up into the foetal position. At the end of the movie itself, she emerges gasping for air from the water, trembling, before taking her first shaky steps on solid ground. There are Biblical references also to angels, an afterlife, an all powerful God, fate and pre-destination.

Dr Stone represents an emerging category – ‘spiritual but not religious’. Research by the think-tank Theos and online radio show Things Unseen Pod identified that Britain is increasingly finding meaning in a spirituality that is not necessary dogmatic or tied to a specific religious tradition. A clear majority of Britons, nearly two thirds, believed spiritual forces exist and can influence the physical world. The research also revealed that 16% of people said they had experienced a miracle, a view more common amongst the younger generation than the older. If these findings, highlighting the extent of spiritual belief, are taken alongside a general decrease in census data of people identifying with organised religion, it suggests a growth of the ‘spiritual but not religious’. If it is to be considered an emerging religious identity, then it made its first big screen breakthrough with Gravity.

The very big questions tackled in the film – of life, death and meaning – did however feel only superficially addressed. There were no real answers, and with little dialogue you’re never quite sure what thoughts are going through Dr Stone’s mind, and if she does reach some new spiritual understandings, they are not shared with the audience. An old adage comes to mind – better one hole, ten feet deep than ten holes, one foot deep. Perhaps in trying to be broad church, Gravity fails to delve into anything deeper or more substantial.

That doesn’t however take away from the film itself. It’s a cinematic treat (so cinematic in fact it’s difficult to know how the experience will translate to the small screen); it is a movie that is intentionally slow and better for it and director Alfonso Cuaron is a confident and capable story-teller. Gravity breaks ranks with many recent blockbusters intent on epic storylines and complicated plots and instead in delivers a truly human tale and asks very simple but profound questions.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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