George Clooney's new film Gravity represents a world cut adrift from God. “Life in space is impossible”, intones the opening text of Gravity, but that doesn't mean it can't be beautiful.
From the film's first shot of the blue jewel of the earth hanging suspended in the blackness to the terrific struggle for survival that follows, Gravity spends its time shuttling between the terror and beauty of the void. In the process, it dramatises the frailty of human existence in the face of a hostile universe, one in which neither our gods nor our technologies can finally save us.
Gravity's stark depiction of ultimate reality is one where all that stands between the endless vacuum and us is our wit and will to live.
But that's getting ahead of ourselves, since the film doesn't set itself up in such stark philosophical terms to begin with.
Gravity opens with a routine spacewalk: astronauts carrying out maintenance on the Hubble Space Telescope as it lazily turns above the earth. Rookie NASA engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is troubleshooting an issue with the communication systems when disaster strikes: debris from a destroyed Russian satellite hurtles their way, destroying their ship Explorer and sending Stone spinning wildly into the darkness.
These early scenes pulse with a sickening sense of existential dread: completely untethered, Stone can't arrest her somersaulting freefall and she can't get a grip on her bearings.
With no radio contact from Houston space control and her panicked gulps fast depleting her oxygen supply, she seems done for.
Luckily for her, however, veteran space walker Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) also survived the crash. After locating and then retrieving her, courtesy of his handy jetpack, the two begin their trek to their only hope for survival: an escape pod at the International Space Station.
Though Stone despairs that all communication with earth is lost, Kowalski keeps Houston updated on their activities, reasoning that “if somebody is listening, they might just come save us”.
It turns out that no one – human or divine – is paying attention, so they have to get out of this bind themselves.
Space has long been imagined as the definitive setting in which to encounter the other – alien life, yes, but in an ultimate sense God. But in Gravity space is just empty: nothing but a vast black vacuum. It features no gods (the higher intelligence of 2001: A Space Odyssey) or monsters (the pitiless killing machines of the Alien series), not even the 'truth' Agent Mulder from The X-Files so obsessively pursued.
Gravity's universe is one where humans are utterly, entirely isolated, left to navigate abandoned space stations that are only marginally less lonely than the never-ending void.
In the face of such nothingness Gravity is clear on the importance of having a lifeline: something to hold on to, and to hold you down, so you don't end up floating away.
So we see Stone tethering herself to Kowalski once they are reunited, and they remain umbilically joined as they migrate across the expanse to their destination. But at a crucial point Kowalski severs their connection to teach Stone the wisdom of knowing when to hold on and when to let go.
Not long after another kind of lifeline comes into play. At a point when all seems lost (and there are many such points in this film where one disaster succeeds another), Stone breaks down in despair. She's scared, death seems imminent, and she wants someone to say a prayer for her as “no one ever taught me how”.
This kind of lifeline – perhaps the ultimate of lifelines, since prayer has long been used to connect people to God – is unlike any she's previously used, but one she doesn't access.
It's a revealing moment: for her such a lifeline only makes sense as wish or desire, not as a serious option.
All of which makes Gravity's depiction of stranded individuals finding themselves at the mercy of a hostile universe the perfect space film for our godless times.
New Atheist Richard Dawkins says we live in a “blind, pitiless, and indifferent” universe – one scrubbed entirely of God, significance, and ultimate meaning.
In such a world the only option for a meaningful existence is the Nietzschean route where humans are the beginning and end of their world.
This makes Gravity something of an anti-2001: A Space Odyssey. In that film an alien intelligence, represented by the smooth black monolith that appears at crucial steps of human development, shepherds humans through the process of shrugging off their earthbound infancy in order to advance into their extraterrestrial future. We could only get there, the film imagines, through the ministrations of a higher power.
Stone, on the other hand, has nothing but her grit and shaky muscles, long used to zero gravity, to prop her up. Without giving too much away, when she finally gets on her feet again after her ordeal her transformation is not quite that of Dave Bowman into the Star Child of 2001, but it's nonetheless a triumph for the übermensch Nietzsche said would succeed the death of God.
Philosophically, then, Gravity represents a world cut adrift from God. But such a “world without windows”, to borrow sociologist Peter Berger's description of the physical world as a self-contained system operating according to impersonal, blind laws, has nothing to sustain it but the belief in the determination of individuals to survive, and flourish, in even the most impossible of circumstances.
Such a world may set the stage for remarkable feats of human endeavour but it endlessly frustrates the inevitable questions of human existence (how are we here? why are we here? why does anything exist at all?) that the silence of space can only provoke, but not answer.
If Kowalski is right that we must learn which lifelines to keep and discard, then in abandoning the notion of God – which can at least help make sense of those questions, even if we still can't answer them fully – we may have shown that for all our brilliance that can shoot us into space, we may in fact have lost the wisdom to turn towards that which sustains us.
Could it be that in a universe where sustenance of any kind is in short supply, such a move may prove to be our undoing?
Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity.
This article orginally appeared at The Drum.