In the Oscar-nominated movie Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) floats, alone, drifting, against the vast backdrop of space. In Dallas Buyers Club, Rob Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) has disconnected sex as though he's watching someone else. In perhaps the most-discussed scene from 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) dangles from a noose as people go about their daily business around him. And in the wired world of Her, Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his computer's operating system (Scarlett Johansson) while crowds of people walk by, all of them enamored with their own electronic connections.
Many times the Oscars offer us insight into what is going on in the larger culture. In 2008, for example, the best film nominees included There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and the Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men -- while the disturbing blockbuster The Dark Knight waited in the wings. Against the backdrop of two bloody wars and a terrible recession, our notable films were so uniformly dark that Oscar host Jon Stewart turned to his Hollywood audience in 2008 and asked, "Does this town need a hug?"
This year, too, the top movies reflect the hopes, fears, and obsessions of their audiences, and so they offer us a chance to reflect on what these films can teach us. As our opening images suggest, one of the primary themes of our current films is one of our current dilemmas: Why do we feel so alone in a world in which it is possible to be connected 24/7?
How is it possible that we can find it so difficult to find meaningful connection to someone or something outside ourselves?
Gravity is perhaps our best example of this year's exploration of the theme. Sandra Bullock spends most of this short and cinematic film alone, haunted by the recent death of her daughter. Her solitude -- she is lost in space both literally and metaphorically -- defines the movie, and her decision about whether she can go on living offers a haunting reminder of our own existential dilemma. Many of us go through our days from crisis to crisis. We don't pause to reflect on whether life is worth living; we simply do our best to live.
Bullock's Ryan Stone, though, is granted a second chance to reflect, and in one of the movie's most powerful spiritual lessons, she embraces life over death, the easy way out. As the Osar-nominated script by Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron has it
Ecstasy overcomes Ryan and-
Joyful laughter fills her body. SHE IS ALIVE.
In many of this year's Oscar-nominated films, characters seek connection and affirmation, the knowledge that it is better to be alive than not, and an understanding of what truly matters. In the process, characters take up more than a few false leads. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes through women, drugs, money, possessions, and the adrenaline rush of selling bad stocks to foolish investors, yet is never satisfied. Perhaps the closest he comes to an awareness of what truly matters is when he tries to take his daughter after his wife announces she is leaving him (and perhaps he simply can't bear the thought of someone telling him what to do).
The characters in American Hustle all want something. The scam artists played by Christian Bale and Amy Adams also blow through sex, drugs, money, and the thrill of fooling others. Along the way, though, Irving (Bale) discovers that what he really desires is connection. He is filled with remorse for betraying a friend (Jeremy Renner), and by the end of the movie, what he wants more than money or excitement is to be in relationship with his daughter and his partner in crime (Adams).
Solomon Northrup (Ejiafor) in 12 Years a Slave is trapped in a nightmare. An educated, free black man kidnapped into slavery, he holds himself apart from the others on the plantation. He is not one of them, and he holds onto his solitude as a reminder of his past life. But he finds no comfort in this life he's been forced into until he begins to admit his solidarity with all the unhappy human beings forced against their will into lives they would not choose for themselves. It's an existential problem for all of us, which may be why the moment in the film where Solomon chooses to sing along with his fellow slaves is so powerful.
In this and other films, the 2014 Oscars offer us a chance to celebrate and reflect on the quest for connection and meaning. Whatever movie wins Best Picture, we've been given some spiritual insight into what it means to be human, into the disordered desires we pursue, and into the need for authentic connection. This year's movies remind us that we all need to know that we too are not simply floating lost in space.