The life of St Christopher unfolds “a hell of a story” for the reader of the 13th century hagiography anthology, the Golden Legend. Also maintained as a significant feast day in the Eastern Orthodox Church calendar, the story of St Christopher was especially near to the hearts of those on pilgrimage to venerate relics or lay a stone in the cathedral throughout the Medieval period because he was the patron saint of travelers. The Legend recounts how a nearly 8 foot tall man of the 3rd or 4th century named Reprobus resolved to find the most powerful king in the world that he might serve him. While lodging first with a powerful Christian noble, Reprobus saw the lord cross himself at every mention of Satan in the lyrics of a certain song. Believing Satan more powerful than the noble, given the noble’s fear, Reprobus set out looking for Satan; after telling a band of thugs whom he was seeking, one of the thugs proclaimed himself Satan and so Reprobus followed him instead. Finally, after finding Satan avoided the sign of the Cross, Reprobus went in search of Him signified in the Cross. He encountered a hermit, whom he informed of his intent, and the hermit told him he must fast and pray if he was to find Christ. Reprobus flatly denied him, so the hermit told him to use his great stature to serve others by helping them cross a dangerous river. He committed himself to this work, and one day ferried a small child on his shoulders who grew heavier with every step Reprobus took crossing the water. When at last he reached the other side, Reprobus told the child he was as heavy as the earth itself, to which the child responded He was not the earth, but the creator of the earth “whom you are serving by this work.”
A lengthy and perhaps pedantic introduction for a harrowing motion picture made 1700 years later— however, Gravity explodes with purpose when St Christopher enters the story directly in the middle of the third act.
Director Alfonso Cuarón’s last picture was Children of Men, which chronicled mankind’s ever growing disinterest in life itself. He resumes that narrative from a different angle in Gravity through Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), the film’s hero and sole dynamic character. When we are introduced to Ryan, she is floating outside a spaceship, repairing the Hubbell Telescope while Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), commander of the expedition, orbits around her making casual conversation. Ryan is tense, and Bullock does a fine job clueing us in early that something other than the precarious nature of the character’s work has her ill at ease.
Perhaps anyone would seem on edge against Matt, who ultimately floats off to suffocate alone in space with the vesperal, unruffled spirit typical of a sinless child falling asleep. Matt is not believably serene; he shouts and curses several times, and yet is irrationally confident that Ryan will live while she spins away into space after their ship is destroyed by shrapnel, and again when her oxygen is running out as they move towards a Russian space station for refuge. He speaks to Ryan like a father speaks to a small boy who believes a scraped knee will soon lead to death. At times, he is nearly patronizing. Matt’s tranquility jars with the spirit of the film— Cuarón spent a mint getting the picture to look terrifyingly real, so why allow the star to ruin the illusion by playing his character so flat, so false? Squirming in my seat like I do at the dentist, I was far more alarmed by the fictitious danger than the fictitious Matt was by his own reality.
Gravity trades in the paradoxes of connection. Ryan is safe when she is attached to the spacecraft, but endangered when that cord is broken. When the two astronauts float from the wreckage of their ship toward a Russian space station, an umbilical cord unites the helpless Ryan to Matt, who gives her solace and plays her confessor. Here, Ryan divulges the story of her four year old daughter’s accidental death (Children of Men also centered on a hero recovering from the loss of a very young child) which she learned of while driving in her car; traumatized by the situation, she ever returns to her car to drive aimlessly, as though another call might come reversing the tragic news. If anyone ever needed the intercessions of the patron saint of travelers, it is this woman, a pilgrim with no destination. Ryan seems a person who is not merely mourning, but obliterated by her suffering. She lacks hope, and so every death is not only a tragedy, but an unremitting and eternal tragedy.
After crashing into the Russian space station, Ryan becomes entangled in hundreds of looping ropes attached to a parachute deployed to keep the station in place after being hit with the same shrapnel. She yet clings to Matt, who is free of the ropes, but moving with enough momentum that if Ryan does not release him, he will pull her loose and they will both float away into nothingness. Here, the visual theme of the first act is turned upside down. Attachment is not life, but death. Courageously, Matt does what Ryan cannot do in good conscience, and willingly detaches himself from her, not because he is ungrateful for his life but because he loves her. The scene is moving, sad, but does not weigh heavily on us because Matt seems superhuman, beyond suffering. His death fulfills the visual motif introduced in the opening moments of the film. He revolves around her. The powerful revolves around the weak. Matt is Ryan’s aid and helper, but the force and the draw are Ryan’s. Why? She suffers. Suffering people are powerful. The strength of God is made perfect in weakness.
After Matt floats away, Ryan enters the Russian space station and falls asleep, curled up like an unborn child and spinning slowly, end over end, in amniotic zero gravity. The image might not hold up against criticisms of heavy-handedness, but again, Cuarón is intentionally vexing the audience. Has Ryan changed? She has not. Fetal images often convey newness of life, rebirth into higher realities, although Ryan seems no less lost when she arrives on the Russian space station than when she confessed her insecurities to Matt or anxiously asked for quiet while working on the Hubbell. Cuarón seems to employ the image not as a sign change has taken place, but that change is taking place. Ryan is being remade, refashioned, and so she has become blind to the world, not more aware of it. The mystery of rebirth is in the loss of control, not the gaining of it. Rebirth is a yield, a surrender, an ignorance, a helplessness.
After a fire breaks out in the Russian space station, Ryan retreats to a small space craft she can fly to a Chinese station where she might find a means back to earth. However, too late she discovers this craft has no power. Here, the camera lingers for a moment on the icon of St Christopher who has been tacked just above the pilot’s station where Ryan sits. She turns on a radio and, after a moment, finds herself talking with a Chinese man back on earth (he speaks no English). She can also hear a dog and an infant. Ironically, the Chinese man and the dog and the infant all speak different languages, but none of them is helpful to Ryan. She consigns herself to death, speaking aloud to herself and to the deceased Matt as she turns off her oxygen. She tells Matt that she never learned to pray, but that Matt will soon encounter the spirit of her own dead daughter. She asks Matt to greet the girl, to speak on her own behalf. To tell her daughter that she found her lost shoe— the small matters of the girl’s last day never forgotten and still pressing in their own way.
But then Matt appears suddenly outside the craft, which he then opens, climbs in and tells Ryan he has “a hell of a story” about how he got back to her. In a few short strokes, he corrects her despair, reminds her of what she once knew, and sets her back on course.
Viewers will no doubt be divided on who or what this is, because Matt disappears in the end just as quickly as the Christ child disappears from the shoulders of St Christopher. Is it an hallucination? While a logical possibility, such an interpretation is without moral or artistic foundation in the story. Ryan’s weakness is constantly countenanced with the unexplainable faith of Matt Kowalski that all will end well, it seems strange a poet like Cuarón would suddenly declare the frail hero autonomously strong, the answer to her problem emerging from her subconscious as an evolutionarily-implanted self-defense mechanism. Of course, people regularly have hallucinations, but they do not regularly have hallucinations which offer them life-saving advice. Such hallucinations are visions. Or angels.
Who was Matt? And who is the Matt who appears late in the film?
Cuarón has showed himself a filmmaker sympathetic to Christianity, and comfortable dealing lightly in mystical turns of plot. During the final act of Children of Men, while imprisoned and chased through a sprawling refugee camp, heroes Theo and Kee take refuge in the bizarrely plush apartment of a Russian Orthodox family (icons galore) whilst all the world around them is breaking forth with violence and falling to pieces. The premise of Children of Men seems a frustration with the latest and most horrific revelations of a culture devoted to pursuing death; Cuarón is known for the long lives he gives his shots, and he employs as a cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, a mainstay of Terrence Mallick, the other great visual poet and devotee of life and livingness working today.
Matt is able to resolve, in his death, that which he could not do for Ryan while alive. Ryan admits in prayer she has never learned to pray, but she might reach out in faith and hope that an intercessor whose love she has known directly can speak with the soul of her departed daughter. The dialectic of the film is then decidedly Late Antique Christian; the sting of death is abrogated, and selfless love is nothing less than the revelation that all gates between this life and the next have been thrown open. Death is not unremittingly tragic, but vanquished in love here and now. In Augustine’s City of God, the great doctor commends man’s uprightness as a sign that God intended man to rise; born on four legs, man rises to two in his maturity and sees he must continue to rise if he would mature. Gravity is not about pregnancy, as was Children of Men, but about the mythic act of man-carrying-man, which is to say man-lifting-up-man. Matt caries Ryan, lifts up her to God, and so her words are lifted up by the saints to the Empyrean.
While it seems a bit dramatic to claim that Matt, as he appears on the screen at the beginning of the film, is an angel, his dispassionate calm and other-worldly confidence over the first two acts aptly set up his miraculous appearance and disappearance in the third. As the story of St Christopher would have it, holding up the weak is divine work. Matt not only transports Ryan to safety in this life, he carries her prayers and her weakness to God in the life to come. The interpenetration of heaven and earth, eternal and temporal, in the closing moments of the film is both surprising and understated. Like Dante, who must descend through Hell that he might rise up Mount Purgatory and through the realms of the spheres, Ryan spends the third act falling that she might, in the final coda, ascend through the dark waters of Sheol and emerge in paradise.
You might walk out singing the Doxology.