Two hundred miles.
It doesn’t seem that far these days. Drive 200 miles between New York City and Boston, and you’ll rarely be far from a Starbucks. A 200-mile road trip through the open West will take you past cookie-cutter convenience stores offering sodas and beef jerky and unleaded gas. The time zone probably won’t change in 200 miles. The area code might not either. A couple hundred miles aren’t enough sometimes to see a change of scenery.
Unless, of course, you take that trip straight up.
Back in the day, space shuttles would orbit above Earth at between 200 and 385 miles—no Starbucks in sight. There, where you can see our globe cup like the underside of a spoon, life itself is an intrusion. The cosmos conspires to kill anyone who touches it. Out there, death is only as far away as a twisted air hose, a frayed space suit or an unhinged tether.
Matt Kowalsky, Ryan Stone and a handful of others have taken that 200-mile trip straight up. For Matt, it’s just the latest of many. He’s a career astronaut, intimately familiar with space’s cold and dark, its weightlessness and airlessness. But Ryan’s a newbie. The weightlessness upsets her stomach. The emptiness disquiets her. She’s gripped by a sense of fragility—the sense that life can end so quickly, so unexpectedly. Her own daughter died in a school yard accident not long ago but so far below her now. And if a little girl like that could be taken away so easily in the relatively kind confines of Earth, how much more tenuous is life out here, 200 miles up?
As the two work in the inky weightlessness, walking (if you can call it that) through space, Matt and Ryan get disturbing news. Russia, trying to shoot down one of its own satellites, has caused an unintentional chain reaction—damaging other satellites and sending the resulting debris hurtling toward the astronauts. They try to speed through their procedures, but it’s too late: The satellite they’re working on and the space shuttle they’re counting on are soon pelted with bits of metal and plastic, each scrap a silent missile.
It’s chaos—silent, cold, deadly. And when it’s over, it leaves tragedy in its wake.
The debris destroyed the shuttle and killed everyone else onboard. Still floating outside, the two have their spacesuits, but Ryan’s air is running dangerously low. They’ve got just one real shot: Go to the International Space Station, a bright dot in the distance. There are emergency rescue craft there. Maybe a working radio. Matt says he even knows where the Russians keep their vodka.
But no one has ever attempted such an untethered, unconfined trip through open space. A thousand things could go wrong on the way. And once they get there, they have no guarantee of safety. The debris is still shooting ’round and ’round in orbit, and it’s due back in 90 minutes.
Matt and Ryan are a study in contrasts: Matt is calm, cool and unflappable, Ryan fearful, brittle and fatalistic. When they find themselves in the fight of their lives, Matt has to at first literally pull her along.
As they begin their trek across those miles of emptiness, Matt drums up a constant patter to keep Ryan encouraged and engaged. He asks her about home. He marvels at the view. Sure, Matt knows (probably better than Ryan) how slim their chances are. But he never lets his anxiety show. And he does everything in his power to give Ryan the knowledge—and will—to survive.
Even before she wound up in space, Ryan was in a dark, cold place. The death of her daughter nearly killed her too. And while she doesn’t want to die, the rookie astronaut doesn’t have a whole lot of fight left in her—at first. Matt helps change that. “It’s time to go home,” he tells her, and eventually the message clicks. She finds the drive and creativity within herself to not just survive, but to live again, to move past the disaster of her daughter’s death and celebrate the gift of existence she’s been given.
In both Matt and Ryan, ultimately, we see the human spirit at its best: the ability to embrace the beauty in an ugly situation; the life-giving salve of human interaction; the gumption to never, ever give up. And we also see the impulse to sacrifice. At one point, one of them purposefully detaches from the other in order to give the other a greater chance to continue—even though the action will certainly result in death.
For Ryan, Gravity becomes more than a quest for survival: It’s a spiritual journey as well. During her darkest moments, her thoughts turn to her seemingly empty life and to a faith she never had.
“Nobody will mourn for me,” she tells herself. “Nobody will pray for my soul.” And then she admits, “I’ve never said a prayer in my life. Nobody ever taught me how.” But of her dead daughter she says, “I hope I see her soon,” indicating at least a passing belief in an afterlife.
[Spoiler Warning] When all rational hope has evaporated in that deadness that is space, Ryan receives a mysterious visitation from someone close to her. Is it a trick of the mind? A reaction to stress and oxygen deprivation? A heaven-sent vision? The movie never tells us. But her visitor gives her just the words of encouragement she needs. Ryan pulls herself together and, instead of longing to be with her daughter, she decides to honor her memory by fighting and scrapping to live herself. In her mind, she asks her spectral visitor to “Give her a big hug and a big kiss for me. … You tell her that I love her so much.”
In a Russian spacecraft, there’s a picture (done in the Russian Orthodox style) of St. Christopher carrying the Baby Jesus across a river. In a Chinese station, we see a smiling Buddha.
Matt begins a story about how he spotted a woman he was involved with walking hand-in-hand with someone else. The story comes with a punch line: As he got closer, the person holding hands with his lady wasn’t “a guy,” but a little, hairy—
The tale ends there, interrupted by the debris shower.
When Ryan’s not in her spacesuit, we see her wearing a curve-hugging tank top and boy shorts. Matt makes some intentionally awkward passes at her. “You’re attracted to me, right?” he asks. “I know you never realized how devastatingly good-looking I am,” he says at another juncture.
Matt and Ryan are repeatedly thrown up and against various spacecraft with brutal force, and their lives are constantly in peril. The cold presents a problem, of course. Heat and fire are equally disconcerting.
As mentioned, that initial onslaught of debris kills all of Ryan and Matt’s crew mates. One of their fellows is found with his helmet and face smashed. (His head looks like a bit of pottery with a gaping hole punctured straight through.) Two others float in the vacuum of space, gray and weightless.
One f-word. Eight or so s-words. We also hear “a‑‑,” “b‑‑ch,” “d‑‑n” and “h‑‑‑.” God’s name is misused twice (once with “d–n”), Jesus’ once.
Vodka is (sort of) sipped.
In a way, Ryan’s already dead before she ever goes into space.
Oh, she lives. She breathes. She exists. Life is a stubborn thing, and as long as we get what we need to survive—air, food, water, warmth—we can manage. We can make it to the next sunrise.
But there’s a difference between life and living. After her daughter died, she was hollowed out, empty on the inside. A vacuum, as it were—not unlike the vacuum she and Matt find themselves in. When Matt asks her what she likes about space, she says the silence. When he asks what she’d do during her free time, Ryan says she’d drive. That’s it. “I wake up, I go to work, and I just drive.”
It’s interesting that on Earth, a place so conducive to life, Ryan struggled. But in the vast violence of space—a place without air, food, water or warmth—Ryan finds the wherewithal to live again. In the midst of crisis, she digs up the desire to go on. “No more driving,” she says. “Let’s go home.”
Gravity is a gripping, often frightening story—as simple and as complex as a well-worn fable. Distilled in this straightforward narrative (two people try to survive the most hostile environs imaginable) we see life distilled to its most essential pieces: adversity, hope, grief, courage, faith. It is a harrowing spaceship-themed roller-coaster ride of a movie, and it’s not without its content concerns. (You’ve hopefully just read about them.) But in the end, we get out of our pods feeling inspired, encouraged.
Life, Gravity tells us, is a fragile thing. It can be taken from us and from those we love without warning, without care. And one day, it will be taken from us all. But as precious as life is, we can’t bottle it up and store it safe in a cupboard. We can’t horde it like treasure. Life—like air, like warmth—is. It’s meant to float. It’s meant to swim. It’s meant to soar.
Life can be brittle, but it begs to be lived. And if we try, we can find the will and wherewithal to live in even the darkest, coldest and emptiest of places. When we’re surrounded by nothing, we find something inside us—a warm ember given by God that gives us the courage to turn toward Home.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.