Space Action. A Russian satellite is blown up and its field of debris, moving at thousands of miles an hour, now threatens the lives of three astronauts working on an American space station.
It’s an amazingly simple premise, almost too simple. One would think “How can three slow moving space suits in a vacuum be an interesting action story? For 90 minutes? One could not be more wrong. Within minutes of its opening, this action movie delivers a rollercoaster ride of thrills and excitement that does not stop until the very end frames.
Sandra Bullock plays Ryan Stone, a troubled engineer who is in space for her technical know-how to help fix the computer systems on the American space station. George Clooney is Matt Kowalski, the care-free experienced astronaut who brings a light hearted teasing and probing of Ryan’s unease for a perfect balance of opposites.
Within minutes we discover that the Russian space station has been blown up and its debris field is on its way toward the protagonists. Matt and Ryan barely survive their first encounter with the debris that has turned into miniature missiles devastating everything they hit and incapacitating their return flight space shuttle. But survival isn’t enough because Ryan is now cast adrift into space, and the debris field is orbiting the earth, which means it is set to arrive again in ninety more minutes. Based on their first encounter, you just know there’s no way they can endure another one. Talk about a ticking clock.
So the rest of the movie is just one complication after another that blocks Ryan and Matt from their goal of getting out of there and over to a Chinese space station to find a way home. Raw yet simple good old fashioned action that keeps you on the edge of your seat with some stunning visuals of earth and space that will change your mind about the emotional potential of such a story. (No large spaceships and lasers and explosions and aliens needed to keep you on the edge of your seat. But it still cost 100 million dollars to make, so go figure)
But it is not without an emotional subplot. We soon discover that Ryan is a troubled soul who has resigned her life to misery and found her way to space because it’s one place to be alone and “not be hurt by anyone” down on earth. Evidently, she lost her young daughter to a “stupid” chance accident so simple as hitting her head on the ground and now she doesn’t care about her life. No mention whatsoever is made of a father to the daughter, as if a man does not matter or ever mattered, a glaring deficiency of the human soul of this story. Look even if the guy was a jerk, that would have affected Ryan through pain. But to completely ignore a man is feminist clap trap. Matt, on the contrary, has learned to take his own betrayal by his woman on earth as one of his many silly stories he tells to keep his spirits high and his soul from facing his own loneliness.
SPOILER ALERT: So when forced with the need to survive in the face of impossible odds, Ryan is brought to the point of giving up and wanting to just go to sleep in the coldness of space. To give up her meaningless life. With one last idea of hope, she finds the drive to keep going and make something of her life on earth if she can only get back. Of course, the odds continue to pile up against her all the way to the very end for a truly exciting adventure.
The personal story of Ryan is a helpful metaphor for her to return to a productive life on earth. The vacuum of space becomes the isolated “space” to which we withdraw to protect ourselves from the pain of human hurt or betrayal or loss. Okay, not bad. I like it.
Okay, now I want to admit that after interacting with some others on the next issue, I have changed my mind and have rewritten this post. I had argued that there was no transcendence in this story, but I was wrong. There was, I just missed it. It was very subtle. But it was there. Thanks to those who corrected me!
Ryan’s quest becomes one of mere brute survival that rings with the angst of today’s typical postmodern. So she survives to go back to work with a new appreciation of being alive? So what? As she says herself in the movie, she’s still going to die eventually. She doesn’t really have a higher purpose for her existence in the face of death. What is the significance or meaning to an earthbound existence? The drive for survival wakes us up to how we have squandered our time, wasted our humanity. But that can only have meaning in the face of a higher truth, transcendence, like Oh… maybe God?
There are a couple references to God in this story. One is a moment where Ryan does not pray because she says no one ever taught her how to pray. So she doesn’t. The other is a visual comparison of two images in two different space stations, a Russian icon postcard of the Trinity in the Russian space station and a Buddha (or Confucious?) statue in the Chinese station. But Ryan has no personal interaction with these visuals. They are alien to her and amount to a postmodern relativistic comparison of empty god images.
Come on, REALLY? A woman in despair over her daughter’s death and facing her own meaningless demise and she doesn’t have a single thought about her Maker and the afterlife? She doesn’t utter a single prayer to a god she may have doubts about? She admits that she doesn’t know how to pray because no one taught her how. Instead she utters a prayer to her departed Matt for inspiration. It’s the humanist’s god substitute. They need transcendence so they create their own imaginative substitute to fulfill that inner vacuum because they don’t want to face God.
At the end when she is finally safe on terra firma, she grabs some sand from a beach and looks up and says, “Thank you.” But to whom does she say this? The film is ambiguous. Now, she had been “praying” to Matt the entire previous situation that she got out of up in space, so consistency would dictate that she was saying that to Matt as well. But I do think the filmmaker was ambiguous enough for those who wanted to believe she had found a simple faith to import their desires into the ambiguity. I admit I like ambiguity sometimes. That’s what art does. It doesn’t always answer all questions and leaves room for interpretation on the weightier or more mysterious issues.
I felt that the spiritual gravity of the situation required we know who she was saying thank you to. But I have to admit that the story structure does subtley point to that prayer being to God. Here is why: Ryan’s character arc would dictate that if she began “not praying” to God in the beginning of the story, then it would make more story sense that she ends praying to him because she is changed and is a new person, as are all protagonists in good stories. Maybe she was “praying” to Matt as her human savior in space, but ultimately learns that it is God who saved her after all, and her “thank you” is now to God.
It’s a tough one. Ah, the ravages of ambiguity! And thanks to those who opened my eyes to what I had missed. The movie is better than I first thought it was.