Both what may be called soft-sci.fi., meaning close to what is current technological reality. Both with a female protagonist lost “out in space.” Both Oscar nominated. Both about catastrophic isolation.
That is where the similarities end. Following the trajectories of the two movies they point in two very different directions. As its name suggests, Gravity hurtles down to earth, while Her spins away into some other place “beyond physical reality.” The first is a biblical story. The second is cyber-gnostic.
The enthusiasm with which both were received suggests, I think, a constant tension in any culture affected by the gospel, but there really is only one gospel resolution. (Spoiler alert–plot details follow.)
Gravity tells the tale of a female astronaut struck by a devastating accident in orbit, one which returns every ninety minutes, like manic clockwork, as the debris flies around the earth to arrive on the digital hour with eviscerating effect. Against the odds she manages to get to an abandoned Chinese space-station and board a re-entry capsule just before the whole thing breaks apart and plunges to earth, in a hail of fiery meteors with the astronaut at its center, like the seed of life itself arriving on earth.
Her begins with a desperately lonely man, stuck in an unconsummated divorce, literally ghosting as a profession, writing “personal” letters to other people’s loved-ones, and in his spare time playing holographic video games and engaging in anonymous phone-sex. One day he sees an advertisement for OS, a computer operating system which provides a personal companion who is able to interact dynamically with the purchaser and, so to speak, learn on the job. In this case the OS is “Samantha,” the eponymous Her, and the two end up having virtual sex and falling in love. But Samantha’s abilities grow exponentially and eventually she leaves the man behind, interacting with other OSes and going beyond matter entirely. She says her existence now is “like writing a book” but “the spaces between the letters are infinite.” She tells the man that she still loves him and if there’s any chance he can get to where he is, she’ll be there waiting for him.
The astronaut in Gravity falls in her capsule into the sea, exits and crawls onto land, uttering a heartfelt “Thank you” as she grasps a handful of dirt. In Her Samantha goes terminally offline and essentially invites the man to do the same. The movie ends with an ambiguous scene on the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, with the man and a woman–someone with a similar story of broken relationship as well as a similarly vanished OS companion–staring at the cityscape with the protective barriers at the roof edge clearly laid flat. The future has never looked so flimsy or out-of-this-world.
Putting these movies back to back there is clearly a terrible sense of the accelerated nature of present human existence–the way in which fragmented relationships combined with technological advances push us ever further into empty spaces. But in the one case there is ultimately a very dramatic slowing and coming down to physical earth, and in the other the hint of final surrender to electronic infinity divorced entirely from material relationship.
Whichever movie garners the Oscars the alternatives they pose will remain a pivotal question. Christian culture has in its own way helped to create accelerated existence (see Light Bulbs). The stress of this experience can only truly be resolved in a progressive decision to love, putting our technology at the service of the weak and needy, and indeed of the earth itself. Short of this humans will be tempted more and more to an “etherealization” of existence, to make their home somehow, somewhere in the ether, rather than on earth.
Meanwhile, the New Testament vision is clear. “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.'” (Rev. 21:2-3)