Friday 22 November 2013

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and the Evolution of Man

By Adam Hincks, S.J.

The Next Step [of evolution] has already appeared. And it is really new. It is not a change from brainy men to brainier men: it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction—a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God. — C. S. Lewis

This article contains spoilers.

Gravity, the recent film directed and co-written by Alfonso Cuarón, is technically awesome and visually beautiful. It is masterly in its building of suspense. The bold choice to create the sound of outer space accurately—i.e., silence, except for the astronauts’ breathing, the voices of their radio communication and the subtle sounds transmitted through their space suits—is extremely effective. For all these reasons, comparison to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is inevitable and well-deserved.

Further, when I watched Gravity a couple of weeks ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it deserves comparison to 2001 not only because of its technical merits, but because it too is a profound exploration of the human condition. On the other hand, Gravity has a deeply spiritual message that, rather than being similar to that of 2001, is almost diametrically opposed. If the thesis of Kubrick’s film is that man develops through a mastery of technology and the successful domination of his foes, Cuarón’s film counters by insisting that it is only through a spiritual transformation that man can truly develop.

2001: Evolution of the Superman

Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is, in my view, one of the greatest films of all time. In terms of its sheer scope and artistry, it will be remembered long after Gravity is forgotten. On the other hand, I have serious reservations about its core world-view. Though it would be beyond the scope of this piece to explore fully, Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke (who co-wrote the screenplay) were clearly influenced by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. An obvious key to this is the film’s famous signature musical theme, Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, inspired by Nietzsche’s book of the same name.

Human progress in 2001: A Space Odyssey

For Nietzsche, the most important force in human life is the “will to power”—the ability to act on one’s unique desires, unconstrained by any external convention. “The real, fundamental drive of life,” he says in The Gay Science, “aims at extending its power”. Man at his best is not dependent on exterior influences—especially any supernatural claims—but is rather self-made. In the same work, Nietzsche explains: “We … want to become who we are—the new, the unique, the incomparable, those who give themselves the law, those who create themselves.”

The whole arc of 2001 is about man breaking free from the constraints that surround him. The first section of the film is entitled “The Dawn of Man”, in which one tribe of protohumans gains a foothold over another when one of their members discovers how to use a large bone as a weapon. Human progress occurs because man discovers technology—and discovers how to use it violently to assert control over others.

The film then jumps to the year 2001, when people have created space stations and bases on the moon. This astounding technology makes possible the discovery of evidence of alien life, which initiates the next step in man’s evolution. The alien artefact transmits a message that prompts a manned mission to Jupiter, captained by David Bowman (Keir Dullea). However, on the way, the ship’s computer, Hal (named for its model number, the HAL 9000), tries to take over the mission, killing all of the crew except Bowman.

Just like his primitive ancestors, Bowman must defeat an enemy in order to develop. Through his bravery and resolve, he finally manages to out-wit and disable Hal as the ship arrives at Jupiter. Alone, he encounters the alien presence awaiting him, and experiences a metamorphis, being “reborn” as a Star Child. He has reached the next stage of human development.

Gravity: Evolution of the New Man

Scenes of birth in Gravity (left) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (right).

Gravity is notable in that its arc is the almost precisely the reverse of 2001.  At a most basic level, Gravity begins in space and ends on earth, while in 2001, the opposite is true. But there are other, deeper reasons why Gravity can be seen as an antithesis of 2001. There are at least four significant points in the movie that outline a vision of what it means to become fully human.

When protagonist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) reaches the International Space Station after surviving the disaster at the Space Shuttle, the first thing she does after sloughing off her space suit is simply to catch her breath. As she floats, exhausted, in the airlock, she slowly relaxes into foetal position—a shot that was, for me, reminiscent of the final scene of 2001, when David Bowman-as-Star-Child is depicted as a foetus, symbolising his new life. But whereas Bowman is reborn at the end of the film, Ryan is “reborn” close to beginning of the film.

Further, unlike in 2001, her rebirth is not occasioned by an advance in technology—in fact, as Fr. Barron points out in his excellent analysis,  Gravity shows how precarious our reliance on technology can be. Rather, Ryan’s rebirth occurs only because her colleague, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) sacrificed his life to ensure that she would be able to enter the (relative) safety of the space station. The Christological significance of this is important. Rebirth is not the result of technological advance nor of domination over enemies, but of self-sacrificing love.

Before this “birth” scene, we learn that Ryan once had a child who died in an accident. Since then she has, in many ways, lost her moorings. She copes with her loss by focussing all her energy into her work; coming up into space, as far as possible from earth, is a fitting symbol of the distance she has placed between herself and the reality of life.

After her “rebirth” in the space station, Ryan is tempted to remain on this track of despair and attempts suicide. However, before she tries to kill herself by venting the oxygen from her pod, she says a prayer, prefacing it by noting that nobody ever taught her how to pray. Not only is her prayer answered, but it is answered miraculously. She has a vision—or perhaps a dream—of her deceased colleague, Matt Kowalski, who gives her the information she needs to survive the next stage of her return to earth.

Through this vision, she becomes connected to a higher, spiritual reality, for perhaps the first time in her life. As the Russian escape pod goes on its way, she notices an icon of St. Christopher on the control panel; later, in the Chinese pod, there is a tiny statue of the Buddha. There are heavenly intercessors guiding her. In contrast to the Nietzschean vision that the complete man is self-sufficient and autonomous, becoming human in Gravity requires reaching out to the transcendent.

Ryan’s spiritual experience gives her a new confidence and a new determination to do her best to survive. However, she has also gained the freedom to abandon herself to Providence. Before she shuttles down into the earth’s atmosphere in the Chinese pod, she says aloud:
Okay, ready. But before we go, let’s set the record straight. I’ve worked my ass off to get this far, but I guess that’s neither here nor there. I’m about to re-enter Earth and I may survive in one piece or I might be blown to smithereens. I’ll do whatever I have to do and you do whatever you have to do and there will be no hard feelings, okay? … Life is good.
Clearly, she is speaking to someone—and though she might not name that Someone so, it can be none other than God. She places her trust in Him. With this second prayer, Ryan shows that she has become interested primarily neither in survival nor in despair, but in living well in the moment she is in. Such a way of living does not consist in extending her own power, but simply doing what she is able to do and trusting in a higher power for the rest.

The Emergence of the New Man
In the final scene of the film, after the pod has touched down in a lake, Ryan emerges from the water onto dry land. To be precise, she half crawls, half claws her way onto the beach before slowly and painfully standing up on dry land. The sequence is reminiscent of the primordial emergence of life from the ocean. It signifies, I think, the fact that Ryan has evolved. Through her experiences of rebirth, of prayer and of abandonment, she has been transformed into new and more complete person. And it is at this point that the contrast with the vision of 2001 becomes most striking. In 2001, man stands up on solid ground at the very beginning of the film with the discovery of technology and its power to subjugate enemies; in Gravity, it is only after man has a spiritual rebirth that he can evolve to the point where he can rise to stand on his feet.

The last words of the film are yet another prayer. This one is utterly simple: two words spoken as she stands safe and sound on the beach: “Thank you.” For in the end, our development as human beings comes about not by the exercise of our power over nature and other people, but by opening ourselves up to God and abandoning ourselves to his creative power. And the only response can be one of gratitude. This is the true measure of how evolved a person has become.


  1. Great post Adam. I not only look forward to seeing the film but your comments will help me to explore more deeply the richness of the message. Merci.... infiniment......

  2. I entirely agree with this contrast. Well done! I had not seen it so clearly.

  3. Great job! I found myself in agreement with the entire article. You had some really good views and I appreciate you taking your time to write this. Sorry if I am writing this so far from its original posting date, however, I've only now just come to watch "Gravity" and I immediately noticed the Space-Child reference.