Since the famous Blue Marble image of earth from space in 1972, our sense of ourselves as a species has changed. The sense of infinity and awe created by our greater understanding of the universe has replaced the infinity and awe of God. The salvation of the human race isn’t being played out as the passion of the Christ, but as the reach of the telescope. But even though science is supposed to have killed the supernatural, movies just keep creating more cosmic sci-fi myths.
Why are we looking into space to think about spirituality? Space movies are supposed to be about human cleverness, technological apocalypses, sentient machines and alien life. All things physical and logical; astrophysics, mechanics. But space blockbusters keep returning to faith, higher powers, redemption, salvation, sacrifice and love.
Contact attempts to juggle faith and science, eventually trying to recast them both through the experiences of Jodie Foster’s Ellie. When Ellie makes ‘contact’ with a higher life form, she sees the form of her dead father. The religious idea of reunion with the departed pops up again in Steven Soderburgh’s divisive Solaris. We keep tying together space travel, resurrection and immortality, from George Clooney recovering his dead wife to old man Weyland in Prometheus looking to cheat death.
Danny Boyle’s overlooked Sunshine explores salvation, and that enduring trope of the space movie, the messianic hero who sacrifices themselves for their crew/planet/species. Prometheus isn’t subtle at all about religious overtones; it’s about a doomed quest to confront God. The pale bodybuilders who created us are called Engineers, a word that has resonance for both creationists and scientists. This movie also features Christian symbols, references Greek theology, and probes our motivation to know our origins.
Interstellar throws out plenty of biblical references, with a hero who shares his initials with Jesus and Dr. Mann as a Judas figure. It’s also been connected to tales from Hinduism. The whole movie has a tone of profundity and meaning, even suggesting that ‘love’ is a transcendent, undiscovered dimension. “While the film has a marked admiration for science…it has just as much respect for wonder and awe and what you might call…faith.”
Science and theology are not as neatly opposed as we like to think. Both are an attempt to unravel our origins, to feel both insignificant and powerful. We’re used to simplifying this stuff, breaking it down to a binary of logic and the observable vs poetry, the abstract and the divine; the two co-existing sides of human nature. We yearn for answers and we yearn for mystery.
But movies like Contact and Interstellar suggest that when we follow science to its most transcendent levels, logic becomes an inadequate tool. As the pragmatic, matter-of-fact heroine of Contact catapults through space, the spectacular view prompts Foster’s often-mocked gasp ‘they should’ve sent a poet’. We need creativity, rapture, awe to process the vastness of the universe.
Contact was penned by eminent scientist Carl Sagan, who spearheaded the original ‘Cosmos’, a series dedicated to communicating the order and beauty of the natural world to a popular audience, evolution as a logical miracle, its own intelligent design. With Contact, Sagan seems to have wanted to mediate between the opposing ideas of faith and reason; to communicate via pop culture that both are an attempt to understand ourselves, and are complementary sides of human nature.
Gravity operates along the same lines as Interstellar, though it doesn’t have Anne Hathaway to give a gratuitous expository speech about it. It’s love that guides Ryan home, that holds her together. She addresses an intangible presence and even interacts with the shade of George Clooney (he likes space movies). It’s about salvation and the value of life. It even features prayer, and Ryan’s final ‘thank you’ feels pretty damn religious. I certainly won’t be the first to comment that Gravity’s setting represents Ryan’s emotional and spiritual state; space is the void of existentialism, and spirituality is the redeeming power that gets Ryan back to earth.
The internet informs me that the bible explicitly says ‘God is Love’, so in a metaphorical sense, the heroes are saved by the benevolent hand of God. I’m not talking about a huge bearded guy with a booming voice, but a more abstract ‘higher power’ that operates in a way humans can’t comprehend. That’s the cosmic spirituality that the space movie believes in.
Although these films may not subscribe to a specific religion, they do seek to inspire faith and awe. These feelings of connection, of something greater than ourselves, are seemingly part of the human reaction to the vastness of the universe. Those who venture into space often experience something called ‘the Overview Effect’. Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin, described how “the Earth…shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine… Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God.”
Fellow space traveller Edgar Mitchell “experienced what has been described as an ecstasy of unity. I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view.”
UCF’s 2 year study of Space, Science and Spirituality found that those who had travelled in space consistently used terms like ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’. The sheer expanse of space, and the perspective it offers us, provokes a spiritual reaction.
Carolyn Porco is a fierce advocate for the spirituality of science. She articulates how God and knowledge fill the same essential human need; “at the heart of every scientific inquiry is a deep spiritual quest to grasp, to know, to feel connected through an understanding of the secrets of the natural world, to have a sense of one’s part in the greater whole. It is this inchoate desire for connection to something greater and immortal, the need for elucidation of the meaning of the ‘self,’ that motivates the religious to belief in a higher ‘intelligence’ …the same spiritual fulfillment and connection can be found in the revelations of science.”
God as humanity has imagined him is divine, a mystery, unknowable, miraculous. The secrets revealed to us by scientific progress are equally as astonishing, enlightening and confounding. As knowledge of the universe becomes a more important part of our collective consciousness, the institutions of science take up the role that the church once had; they’re our gateway to miracles, they teach us about where we came from and what might become of us. Though space films glorify the power of science, the deductive and analytical, they ultimately envision knowledge as a spiritual frontier. The new vision of space is a place that collapses the boundary between faith and fact, to reveal the beauty in knowledge and the knowledge in beauty. The science of ‘Interstellar’ isn’t the murderer of mysteries but a new form of reverence, the pursuit of a demystified God who resides simply in the boundless coherence of the universe.