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My intent this month is to look at and use three 2014 Academy Award nominated movies as the basis for a message. As we each know, all art forms tell a story in sound or sight that reflect a point of view. Movies are no different. Great films not only entertain, they inspire and enlighten. I’ve chosen three Oscar nominated films that I believe offer us spiritual insight into the human condition and thus help us grow as more aware and informed people. As much as possible, I will try not to tell too much of each story that might spoil your desire to see these films – which I hope you do. Ultimately, great movies subtly change us in ways that alter how we think and act – and for the movies I have chosen to review, I hope that is for our good.
The movie “Gravity” is, in many respects, a bait and switch film. It lures many people to watch it by its heart thumping action and technological wizardry that make the viewer feel as if he or she is literally in outer space. On its surface, “Gravity” is a tour de force in merging computer generated images with real human acting. Over 80% of the movie was computer generated in a way that is unbelievably realistic. Indeed, former NASA astronauts claim the film is a masterful rendition of how it looks and sounds in the vacuum of space – all achieved without anyone ever leaving the ground. Similar to past cinematic technological advances like the addition of color or sound, the use of computers – when used effectively – adds to the overall movie experience. The makers of “Gravity” achieved that goal with stunning success.
But all of the technical achievements of this film serve a greater purpose – to draw one into pondering existential truths. In this way it is a much deeper and thought provoking movie than its action packed veneer suggests. Many have likened it to the classic film “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Personally, I was drawn to its space realism qualities because I’ve often dreamed of one day being a space tourist. But in watching “Gravity” I soon found my feet and head not in star dust clouds of inter-stellar space but instead firmly rooted on earth. The film confronted me with the kinds of questions that have interested humans since the dawn of civilization: Why are we here? Why do we live? Why do we die? What is universal Truth? What controls the cosmos and, therefore, our human destinies?
On these questions, the film is surprisingly spiritual – not in a religious sense but, instead, by asking the kinds of spirit centered questions that grasp for ultimate meaning. So too does the film implicitly ask questions about the natural and supernatural. Can perfectly natural but all powerful cosmic forces like gravity, evolution and thermodynamics have their own transcendent power and beauty and thus be considered “God”?
The movie employs a common thematic set-up much like stories with a shipwreck or disaster situation. In this case, the two characters in the film must find a way to survive the destruction of the space shuttle and space station and return to the safety of earth. The plot is therefore quite simple. The film champions ethics of persistence, innovation and determination in the face of dire calamity. A cold and lonely death, cut off from contact with earth, seems inevitable for the characters and yet the human will to survive takes over.
With this survival theme, however, comes parallel spiritual themes related to life and death as well as the existence or non-existence of a supernatural power that determines not only human existence but all creation. Is there a god and, if so, what comprises god? Is god a theological being upon whom we can personally call? Is god perhaps a distant being who has left us and the universe alone? Or, is there no theological god but, instead, a natural universe of fantastic beauty and intricate complexity that essentially functions as god?
Our answer to those questions will likely differ for each viewer of the film. Nevertheless, it seems the prevailing answer found in the film is that we exist and are governed by many gods in the form of natural laws and physical forces like gravity – Newton’s third law of motion. The title of the film points us in that direction. The characters in the film are continuously reminded of the law of gravity. No theological god can override it. And the same holds true for other laws of physics and the universe.
The ultimate law that the characters face is the second law of thermodynamics which says that the energy found in any mass within the universe continuously experiences entropy or decrease. In simple terms, and I am certainly not a physicist, this means that all creation is subject to decay. While energy is transformed into other forms, entropy is an immutable fact of existence. This thermodynamics law explicitly states that a “perpetual motion machine”, object or form of life cannot exist in its same condition forever. That is a physical impossibility. No god, no supreme force can alter that fact.
In other words, death and decay – or entropy – are inevitable. As I stand before you this very second, entropy is acting upon me. I’m slowly dying and decaying before your eyes. The wrinkles on my forehead and the bags under my eyes will enlarge as you watch! Entropy and death are brutal truths and ones we implicitly accept but choose to put into the back of our minds. But the law of entropy and transferred energy, like gravity, is one that the characters in this film must immediately confront. Death is so near they can see its face and know that it is very, very near.
Indeed, the Sandra Bullock character at one point finds herself with no apparent options to survive. She is stranded in a tiny capsule with no fuel and limited oxygen. Death and the grim reaper have arrived. She gives in to this inevitability by giving up. But the human impulse to live soon rises up in her and she then fights all the harder to survive. She experiences, in symbolic form, the birth, death and re-birth that all creation undergoes. Her old, depressed, defeatist attitudes die and she is reborn as a newer, wiser, and more determined person. The immutable and merciless laws of nature – like entropy – act against us but we must not lie down in defeat before them.
And that idea is clearly portrayed in the movie. We must hold onto and cherish the gift of life for as long as possible. Indeed, that innate will to live and survive is also a type of god. The films shows us not an outside theological god acting to save the Sandra Bullock character. No prayer, no religion, no Savior rescues her. As a strong, resourceful and intelligent woman, she quickly learns to fight and think and strategize her own survival. She saves herself. Ultimately, as a child of the universe, she acts as her own god.
Such a view has long been echoed in human thought. It was eloquently stated by Dylan Thomas in his famous poem…
Wild ones who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave ones, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We cannot alter the truth of entropy and death. We will fall to its inevitability. But what Thomas implores of humans and, more personally, his father, is that the fact of death does not mean we simply surrender before it. Since every baby begins to die after its first breath, does that mean it should accept its ultimate fate and give up? Of course not. Does it mean any person – at any age in life – should actively or quietly let entropy win its final battle? Dylan begs us to say no to that question. The movie “Gravity” tells us the same. Death may be inevitable but let it not conquer so easily.
Physical forces acting in the universe are gods. We cannot change them. We can admire and stand in awe at their intricate complexity and fantastic beauty. But human life – much like all creation – is a part of all natural laws. Our lives came about through natural forces like evolution, gravity and thermodynamics. We exist, therefore, as a part of the much larger cosmic whole. Stars and galaxies billions of miles away exist and function according to the same laws that allow us to live and breathe. All around us are beauty and complexity and wonder. And we are intricately a part of that truth. We are the universe and it is us. The whole universe is god and, as a part of the universal order, so are we.
To live fully, purposefully and beautifully is an act of worship and obedience to universal laws that govern and define our existence. Yes, we will all die but first we must truly live. First we must hold onto life with all our strength. We must do so in ways that give us meaning and purpose. A star does not exist simply to plant itself in a corner of space and sit there for no reason. It exists to give light, to generate and give away energy, to add to the complex running of the universe.
In the same way, each human exists with a purpose and function – to serve and advance other life and insure there is a continual creation and re-creation of humanity and other creatures. Every creation in the universe has a function according to natural laws. Humans are no different. We do not live just for ourselves – to suck up energy and resources only for our individual existence. We have a role to fulfill as a part of the intricate mutuality of all things. Life and existence is not ours to throw away.
In this way, the film “Gravity” reminds us to see the universe with profound gratitude. Yes, it’s merciless forces might destroy us, but so too do they sustain us. Gravity and entropy both bless and take away. They are simply the rules of existence and we can futilely fight them or else embrace and accept them. Indeed, without the forces of gravity, thermodynamics and evolution, we would not exist. As I said before, they are the face of God to us.
David Brooks wrote in his New York Times column last Tuesday that the problem with almost all contemporary religions is that they have lost the transcendent wonder upon which they were initially founded. In his mind, the ultimate form of spirituality is to feel and experience peace, wonder, awe and ecstatic joy at being a part of and experiencing the wider universe. All of existence is a great cathedral of wondrous beauty in which we are called to worship and serve.
Religion, however, turns our hearts and minds away from the sublime. Religion tells humans to dwell on the mundane and trivial acts of legalism and so-called morality as a way to honor and obey god or goddesses. Instead of manifesting love and rapturous awe at the powerful forces and diversity of created things, religion commands that we think small, that we focus on ourselves as the pinnacle of everything. Instead of embracing and worshipping an awesome universe and our place within it, we become consumed with saving just ourselves. No god that claims to be the master of the universe would think so small as to be preoccupied only with humans. We are but one very small and very insignificant part of a much greater and much more fantastic realm of existence.
And the movie “Gravity” ironically confirms this truth. The earth and all of creation are gifts to us – much like life itself. They are to be worshipped and deeply honored. The George Clooney character at one point marvels at the glory of a sunset reflected on the river Ganges – a spiritual moment he experiences while looking down from outer space – much like we imagine god doing.
Natural laws created life such that we were not destined to be specks of dust drifting in the cold of space but that we could be born and grow to consciously experience the universe and it’s profound beauty. Physical laws birthed us and we must honor those laws by fulfilling our purpose for as long as possible. To do so, we must act as our own saviors, as our own gods. We are masters of our destiny – for good or bad. But our true destiny is to live out our allotted time in useful ways – to serve our function – to love, sustain, nurture and care for other life – other humans – as a part of the wider and interconnected universe. Let us see ourselves, our universe and the natural laws that govern it with awe and reverence worthy of being called God.
I wish you all many moments of ecstatic peace and joy.