For those of you who have not yet seen Gravity, the latest film by Alfonso Cuarón starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, you may want to wait to read this post as it may be a spoiler alert for you.
Cuarón, who has received 3 Oscar nominations for previous films, provides a breathtaking masterpiece in this film both in terms of the visual effects and in terms of well-threaded underlying themes. Two of these themes which I was thoroughly struck by were prayer and gratitude which are inextricably linked both in life and in the movie and which are the motifs which show development in Sandra Bullock's character, Mission Specialist Ryan Stone.
At the beginning of the film, the veteran spacewalker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) asks Stone what she thinks about being in space for the first time. She replies that she likes the silence best. Her response seems less like an appreciation of contemplation and more like flight into escapism from the depression which constitutes her life. For her there is little gratitude and much anxiety about her circumstances. When disaster strikes and Kowalski chooses to sacrifice his life by detaching physically from Stone (an ideal metaphorical example of what our disposition toward the transient things of life ought to be) we recognize the freedom he truly has in making his choice. Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." (John 15:13) Kowalski's reward is a vision of the sun reflecting off the Ganges river--a sacred symbol for Hindus--and his remark about the beauty of the vision manifests his gratitude and is a metaphor for his return to God. I am most grateful to Fr. Robert Barron for this insight in his commentary on the movie.
The source of Stone's depression stems from the accidental death of her daughter who slipped and hit her head. The fragility of human life which her death highlighted for Stone characterizes the precipitous state of affairs for Stone herself as she struggles against all odds to return to earth. Faced with such merciless fragility, one might question the presence of God or wonder whether any meaning or significance pervades human life. Stone at her lowest psychological point in the movie laments that she never learned to pray and that no one taught her how. Here begins the marvelous ascent of her soul to find both prayer and gratitude.
For a brief moment she turns off the oxygen supply in her capsule planning to drift into a suicidal sleep and receives a vision of Kowalski who gives her a pep-talk. It is intentionally ambiguous whether the vision of Kowalski is from beyond the grave or a hallucination for delirious Stone. Reanimated, Stone begins to talk to Kowalski asking him to pass on a message of love to her deceased daughter (a germinating form of prayer). As the movie progress, Stone gains both courage and detachment and at the conclusion of the film, having landed back on earth, she swims to the safety of a beach and whispers "thank you." There is no doubt as to the intended recipient of this message: God. The two themes of prayer and gratitude come together in one magnificent synthesis.
If there is one lesson I would like us to take away from the film, it would be that gratitude is a fruit of genuine prayer. If we open ourselves genuinely and sincerely to God, we will inevitably find a greater sense of spiritual detachment to lesser things, to illusory control of our lives, and will gain a pervasive sense of gratitude. At the same time, cultivating a greater sense of gratitude in one's life will lead naturally to prayer and an awareness of our longing for God. Fr. John Kavanaugh, SJ used to remark in his classes that the famed agnostic neuroscientist Oliver Sacks, through his marvel at the human person, would wake up in the morning filled with gratitude and wonder who to thank!
As I left the theater bereft of speech all I could do was imitate Ryan Stone at the movie's conclusion and thank God for my life and for Gravity.