“LET’S GO!” – Yuri Gagarin’s famous cry
at the start of the first manned spaceflight (1961)
“DON’T LET GO” – the official tagline
for the movie Gravity (2013)
Watching Academy Award-winning movies is often more thought-provoking than entertaining. In addition to their responsibility for much of the visual indoctrination of the human race, Hollywood bosses never miss an opportunity to indulge lazy intellectuals with intriguing screenplays that sound out new ideologies and concepts. The winner of seven Academy Awards and recipient of a record number of nominations for 2014, Gravity, created by one of Mexico’s controversial three amigos, is a vivid example of this approach. This very successful movie, which mocks the intelligence of anyone even slightly familiar with basic astrophysics and aerospace professional culture, manages to meld the ignorance of the general public with cosmic philosophic ambitions.
A brief plot synopsis: three American astronauts, busily repairing the Hubble Telescope in open space, receive a warning that the debris from a defunct Russian satellite is speeding toward the shuttle. Soon the telescope, shuttle, and crew have been engulfed in catastrophe. Eventually Dr. Ryan Stone, the female biomedical engineer and sole survivor, manages to prevail over these dramatic events and her own personal psychological trauma in order to reach Earth onboard the Chinese Shenzhou capsule. During the story, all man-made equipment orbiting Earth has been destroyed or turned into clouds of violent debris.
Despite its banal plot, Gravity is technically exceptional. The film set makes lavish use of 3D technology. Twisting with the heroes in a zero-g environment, the camera is oblivious to the concepts of “up” vs. “down.” The visual perspective from inside the spacesuit helmets is fascinating. Tears and blood form gleaming spheres that drift before the camera, paralyzing the viewer with the skillful cameraman’s virtuosity and the art director’s visual effects. Zero gravity, the abyss of space, and the cramped interior of the spacecraft are all physically tangible while watching this masterpiece of talent. But what is the ultimate message of this impressive work?
Our parents and grandparents viewed the exploration of space as the final frontier for human knowledge and technology, and they saw cosmonauts (known as astronauts in the US) as the vanguard of mankind. When Queen Elizabeth violated protocol by posing with Yuri Gagarin, she noted serenely that her actions were quite acceptable, as he was not an earthy but a heavenly man. Fifty years later we hardly know who is even stationed on the ISS or what the hell are they doing there. The world’s dreams were first set in motion through the magic of IT, but quickly collapsed along with the dot-com bubble. Today mankind ekes out its boring existence with no palpable ambition at all. Gravity alleges that there is nothing in orbit to take our breaths away. “Forget about the romance of space – a human being is just a helpless scintilla amidst the orbiting garbage, tied to Earth by gravity” – wrote one movie critic in Russia.
From the opening scene, the dominance of routine and locus communis is emphasized down to the last detail. The protagonists working in open space (!) behave as if they were ordinary office clerks,while Dr. Stone is utterly unprepared to meet any of the challenges that face her. Her job is not a mission or vocation, but merely means of forgetting about the tragic death of her young daughter. The screenwriter dictates to us the paradigm of predetermination – that life in space is just as fragile and easily snuffed out as it is on Earth. The moment when she decides to fight for her life and escape her fate plays out as utter farce – Sandra Bullock (Dr. Stone), dressed in a Sokolspacesuit (a Russian pressure suit designed to be worn strictly inside a space vehicle), leaps from the Soyuz into open space (!) and maneuvers to the Chinese station using a fire extinguisher!
“We live in an era in which ludicrous nonsense increasingly takes the place of scientific fact and is being fed to the public on a massive scale. The creators of Gravity opted not to diverge from this established pattern.” (from a review in the Russian press).
In Gravity, astronauts and equipment in space are under attack by a cloud of swirling garbage. In essence, mankind’s entire space program has become the victim of Chaos and Death. The movie offers no response to this charge. Hollywood insists that there can be no response to it whatsoever. It asserts that a human being should feel happy while standing with wobbling ankles half-buried in clay.
In our cultural tradition, Cosmos represents the harmonious, sacred, and benevolent world, which stands in opposition to Chaos (χάος in Greek means “gap,” a term close to “abyss”). The creation of Cosmos out of Chaos is seen as the Divine Act, giving birth to the world in which we all live.
The Soviet pioneers of space exploration were called COSMOnauts. Their mission was to bring to the abyss of space the harmony and excellence of human technology and to expand the boundaries of Ecumene, “the inhabited world” in Greek. In one scene a Russian icon can be seen onboard the spacecraft. This is St. Christopher crossing a river while bearing the Infant Christ as well as all the burdens of the world on his shoulders. According to his hagiography, St. Christopher has hardly reached the opposite bank when, utterly exhausted, he asked the Infant, “Who are You?” The response – “I am the Coming Day.” Minutes later in Gravity that day mercilessly burns its way into the atmosphere.
This is Hollywood’s message for us: human existence is dull everywhere, whether in an office cubicle or the space station. Wherever you might roam, listening to Bob Dylan on your headphones, you will neither be able to repair a communications card nor bring back a deceased child. Whatever your dreams are, everything will be: a) routine; b) filled with existential suffering; and c) helpless before the attacks of Chaos. Forget about Gagarin – now you have seen Dr. Stone, the last (wo)man in space!
The shocking truth behind Gravity‘s success is that the visual effects is apparently the only technology in progress in today’s world. But in case we don’t learn to dream again, the last man in space would soon turn to be a last man on this planet…