(RNS) Reviews of the new hit movie “Gravity” note that it’s an unusually fine science fiction film. What they don’t mention is that the main character represents an increasingly common theme in American religion: The spiritual “none of the above.”

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Warner Bros. Pictures' dramatic thriller "GRAVITY," a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone in Warner Bros. Pictures’ dramatic thriller “GRAVITY,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Yes, the special effects are splendid. And I’ll take the word of astronauts who say the visuals capture amazingly well what it’s like to work in the microgravity of near-Earth orbit.

But there are moments where spiritual and philosophical themes take center stage.

(Spoiler alert: I’ll give no more away than I’ve seen in most reviews, but if you really want to know nothing about the movie, see it first.)

There’s precious little dialogue in this relatively short film that is devoted to anything but technical details. So it’s perhaps a bit surprising that a significant chunk of it is about faith — or the lack thereof. Dr. Ryan Stone, a researcher-turned-newbie astronaut played by Sandra Bullock, is eventually alone and probably facing imminent death, stuck in a damaged tin can zipping through shrapnel-loaded airless space.

So she starts a monologue. “No one will mourn for me,” she muses. “No one will pray for my soul. … I’ve never prayed. … Nobody has taught me how. …”

But she sort of prays through action. (Stone is one “Right Stuff” space jockey once the early panic wears off.)  And then she sort of gives up. And in a way, the answer to her prayers shows up in the person of the experienced astronaut played by George Clooney. Sort of.

(As a friend of mine told me: “I mean, he’s my answered prayer, but seriously?”)

George Clooney as Matt Kowalski in Warner Bros. Pictures' dramatic thriller "GRAVITY," a Warner Bros. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

George Clooney as Matt Kowalski in Warner Bros. Pictures’ dramatic thriller “GRAVITY,” a Warner Bros. Photo courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Central questions of existence are raised: “What’s the point of going on? What’s the point of living?”

Why, indeed? Stone, we’ve learned, has been emotionally adrift since her 4-year-old daughter died in an accidental fall. But somehow, somewhere, she comes up with an answer that she doesn’t monologue to those existential questions. She does talk about her daughter as an angel and asks the spirit of one of the characters who hadn’t made it to give the kid’s spirit a hug.

And when she finally ends up safely (we assume) on a beach on a lake somewhere on Earth, she grabs a handful of sand and murmurs “Thank you.”

But who is she talking to?

And that takes us to the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated who make up one in five Americans these days. If they’d all sign up on a list, only the Catholic Church could claim more members in the U.S. The whole point of being unaffiliated, of course, is that they don’t want to sign on to any constraints. When asked to identify their faith on a list, they’ll choose “none of the above.”

But there’s pretty good survey evidence that most of the nones, like Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan, aren’t “nothings.” Some embrace the title “spiritual but not religious,” and even some who say they’re atheists retain some religion-ish trappings.

A 2008 Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life report found that about half the unaffiliated surveyed said they believed in some kind of life after death — including 18 percent of the atheists and 35 percent of agnostics. About 40 percent of the unaffiliated believe in heaven — including 12 percent of the atheists and 18 percent of agnostics. And on the big kahuna question, only 30 percent of the unaffiliated said they were pretty sure there was no God.

As for prayer, the issue raised by the fictional Dr. Stone? Almost half the unaffiliated said they pray at least occasionally. And while this survey didn’t probe it, I’ll bet the likelihood of interest in prayer goes up when confronted with imminent death.

The few details we get about Bullock’s character don’t suggest an open hostility toward religion. Just a lack of contact — and a personal tragedy of the sort that pushes even some of the devout into doubt.

So where does she find the spiritual strength and internal fortitude to persevere in the face of overwhelming odds? Maybe the same place that so many other Americans are looking these days: To overcome her peril in the sky above, Dr. Stone turned to “none of the above.”

(Jeffrey Weiss can be reached at Jeff.Weiss@religionnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @WeissFaithWrite)

23 Comments

  1. Jeffery, Interesting “spin” on this movie. Christians have been trying to get some quasi schadenfreude from the deathbed confessions of non-believers since weak minded men started to find they needed to believe this life is not the only one they have. I think they are hoping that non-believers would give them affirmation upon their death beds that they have not wasted their lives worshiping and praying to something that has been concocted by man, and in most cases accompanied by a poorly written “holy” text of some sort for hundreds of years, examples include the death bed interrogation of Thomas Paine, and more recently the still alive (barely) interviews of Christopher Hutchinson. If you actually look at the raw research data, (thank you for the link) it provides a broader picture of this subject than the example than you extracted from it. Thanks for the opportunity to dig deeper and see what lies behind.

    Consider living life, and loving people without the promise of the carrot, or the threat of the stick.
    Good day!

    • for some reason the religious just cant accept that some ppl, more all the time, have researched, reasoned, studied their own religion, read the evidence and lack of it, and come to the conclusion that there is NO GOD. we dont do that because our parents beat us, we had a crisis of conscience, cause we dont like to be joiners; we do that because we put our own faith on trial using laws of evidence and god lost. we dont have come to jesus moments, we dont reconsider when our lives are at risk, we just accept what believers arent able to (that when we die our bodies will turn to bone in a couple of weeks and that will be it).

      • Dennis, I wonder about your angry desire to eliminate what is a great source of hope for so many. Even Harvard Medical School teaches their doctors to treat patients “holistically” (body, mind and SPIRIT) Humans are spiritual even if that spirituality has a bilogical explanation. I am, therefore I pray.

    • “relgion” is a mud stained buzzword in western society, and not without good reason. the quantum reality that consciousness simply never ends- and that humanity’s rise in science must strive to discover WHY that is, is a lot more plausible than the idea of a judgmental man in the sky with streets of gold or a burning trash can waiting for us after death. I believe absolutely humanity will transcend time and space- the explosive and exponential rate of technological progress can’t end any other way.

      i also believe Love is the most powerful force we have access to. is it God? some people would say so, but that word is just a place holder for Truth. “subjective” reality based on 5 material senses will be laughed at in textbooks of the future, just as the idea that a photograph can steal your soul is laughed at today.

      Great flick! And a nice thoughtful review here.

  2. My theory is that Dr. Stone actually succeeded in committing suicide in the capsule, and that the appearance of her departed colleague, her continued trip to the Chinese space station, and her splashdown and reaching the shore, these were all simply fanciful hallucinations in the moments after her loss of consciousness, and into her loss of life.

    As to the rest, naturally, Pandeism fully accounts. Blessings!!

    • L.C. Villlalobos

      One question. Does she survive or not. Is she really on a beach or is she dead and in heaven…..please answer….somebody….I’m getting a headache thinking about this.

      LCV

    • Mark Lindamood

      I hadn’t even considered the possibility that the last act of the movie was just a dream. That Ryan would even *dream* about survival contradicts everything else we’d seen in the movie before that.

      Consider: At the point when Ryan turns down the air pressure in the first Soyuz, she has completely surrendered to despair. Since she has totally given up by then, why doesn’t she “escape” into dream about her daughter? That seems like a more likely dream for her to have before slipping into death.

      Whether you look at Kowalski’s return as a hallucination, a dream, or an allegory, one fact remains: some event occurs to remind her that her survival is still a matter of choice. If that event is just a hallucination or a dream, where does she find the inner resources to choose survival? Up until that scene Ryan had to be dragged toward self-preservation; the “event” had to have been a “push” from an external source.

  3. Disagree completely. I just saw the movie and she was praying. who cares “who” she prayed too, it could have been the Invisible Pink Unicorn, she ascribed to supernatural existence, and thus, a lack of atheism. Sorry my leftist atheist friend. Honestly, if atheists would be less left wing, they might actually have more intellectual draw. But right now, the fact that most atheists are left wing socialists as predictable as any zealot, they lose credibility in intellectualism.

  4. While perhaps a “none” early in the film, Ryan’s “none” is nevertheless religious. She believes in souls. She just regrets that nobody taught her to pray. The story is a pretty transparent telling of a should-have-been believer coming back to Christ, complete with a visit from an angel.

  5. Your analysis “sort of” does not do justice to the (cinematic and real) person who considers himself as an atheist but still experiences a spiritual longing, even a longing to pray. We should recognize and appreciate this desire to pray, this cry from the depth of our being in the face of death, as the very basis of all our prayers. And we should be grateful that a mainstream action movie is capable of capturing this delicate moment in a world dominated by tech-speak (the latter beautifully symbolized by the movie as well). The movie gave me an intense compassion and desire to pray for all the souls that have not been thought how to pray, in fact I did so in the parking lot right after watching the movie. Your analysis seems too cold and condescending to appreciate and love the person with a real desire to pray, and a real regret in the face of death for not having recognized this desire earlier. It sort of reminds me of the older brother in a parable known to us. Whether the Ryan Stone character is dead or alive at the end of the movie, and nonwithstanding her thinking she can’t pray, I interpret the ending that her prayer has been answered. Let us rejoice and hope our own prayers will be too one day!

  6. This quote made me cry. I felt that it is sad that no one showed her how to believe. I hear so many parents say that they want their children to be vale to choose their beliefs. My problem is that who is teaching them the options? This quote made it clear to me that this soul wanted to believe, but she was never taught how. So sad. This is the point where I cried.

    • No, she didn’t say that no one taught her how to believe, she said that no one taught her how to pray. There’s a difference. Whether that means Buddha, or god, or some form of god. And what’s wrong with children making their own choice on what they believe in? I’ve made my choices based on research, conversations I’ve had with others, experiences in my life, and some of my upbringing. No religion was ever forced down my throat or indoctrinated into me. Religion isn’t something that works for everyone.

  7. This quote made me cry. I felt that it is sad that no one showed her how to believe. I hear so many parents say that they want their children to be able to choose their beliefs. My problem is who is teaching them the options? This quote made it clear to me that this soul wanted to believe, but she was never taught how. So sad. This is the point where I cried.

  8. She turns down the Oxygen sits back and falls a sleep she has a dream. Wakes up and begins to fight for her life again Was it God – no Was it a ghost – no. It was a dream, we all have had them and it wasn’t a ghost in her dream because it was A DREAM. We have dreams of people we meet and loved one that have passed on. Its can feel so real but it not same here. Nothing More

    • Interesting interpretation, a dream, during the finality of ones’ existence, the most fear inducing, physiologically traumatic instance– and Ryan simply falls asleep. Depraved of oxygen she suddenly rallies back to consciousness and decides to fight! But dream- state doesn’t occur instantly,[ there wasn't enough time to enter REM stage sleep] and certainly not under such catastrophic circumstance– then what really happened to Dr. Ryan Stone? Is there a parallel, or philosophical, spiritual or transcendental subtext to her emerging from the metallic womb on the shores of the afterlife? Moreover, was the “baby crying” over the radio in someway ” foreshadowing,” rebirth? What are your thought Mr. Don?

  9. “And that takes us to the “nones,” the religiously unaffiliated who make up one in five Americans these days. If they’d all sign up on a list, only the Catholic Church could claim more members in the U.S. The whole point of being unaffiliated, of course, is that they don’t want to sign on to any constraints.”

    I have never encountered anyone who has ever said or implied that they don’t belong to any religion because they don’t want “constraints”.

    What I have encountered are people who belong to religions who accuse unaffiliated people of doing so to avoid “constraints” — in other words, it’s just a stereotype used to disparage someone else’s religious views, to avoid having to actually address another person’s different outlook.

  10. Sorry, but the religious exploration in this movie was simply a populist appeal that religious people want desperately to believe: There are no atheists in foxholes. Sure, there are plenty of “spiritual” people who claim no religion, but among scientists, the statistics in this article do not hold up at all. Scientists are significantly more atheistic than the general population and the charater of Dr. Stone was more likely to be an atheist than a “spiritual non-theist” than this article implies. The “no atheists in foxholes” notion is entirely false and offensive and it makes me very sad that people are still so bigoted against atheists that they entertain this concept.

    • Mark Lindamood

      Your last sentence fascinates me. Perhaps the notion that there are “no atheists in foxholes” is over-board and fanciful. But the fact that anyone could be “offended” by the suggestion that there are “no atheists, etc.” suggests that there are statistics which prove the point one or another.

      All it would take to disprove the “no atheists..” argument would be a *single* instance of an atheist who has faced some enormous calamity, surrendered to despair, and then survived anyway. Have you got a single story like that?

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