Lost in an earth-bound cosmos

WASHINGTON — “I hate space,” says the character played by Sandra Bullock in the new movie “Gravity,” and you can understand why: It’s an empty void, filled with the wreckage of failed satellites and derelict space stations, a beautiful nothingness where human beings float helplessly, praying for some way to get home.

Movies have a way of distilling moments in our culture, and “Gravity” may be the defining film for the lost-in-space year of 2013: Nothing works. Our political system is clogged with debris. We can’t read the instruction manuals for rescue craft because they’re in Chinese. If we think help is on the way, we’re probably hallucinating because of oxygen deprivation.

I won’t spoil the plot by telling you what happens to Bullock and the other characters in Alfonso Cuaron’s marvelous film. But let’s explore the dark vision this film captures so well: the terrifying sense of drifting untethered in the cosmos, tumbling out of control, turning desperately to support systems that fail, one after the other. The astronauts keep calling “Houston,” but the reassuring voice of control that brought space travelers home in “Apollo 13” isn’t there.

“Gravity” is a talky film, but as New York Times critic A.O. Scott noted, the garrulous characters are really just trying to fill the terrible reality of silence. It’s like watching cable TV while the federal government goes off a cliff. None of the pundits has a clue what’s happening, but they keep up the chatter.

For a sense of how “Gravity” marks a distinct cultural moment, compare it to another iconic film about the cosmos, Stanley’s Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” That movie was also about being lost in space. Keir Dullea played an astronaut on a mission to Jupiter when the computer running his ship, known as “HAL,” takes control. Dullea’s character also finds himself adrift outside his capsule in the blackness of space, but he’s drawn into a cosmic apotheosis that is a fable of rebirth and infinite life.

Kubrick’s film was released in 1968, as American culture was heading over the lip of a waterfall. It was a time of political upheaval — the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the sudden withdrawal from the presidential race of Lyndon Johnson. Back then, outer space was still a blessed escape from all the terrestrial turmoil. The year after Kubrick’s film was released came Neil Armstrong’s landing on the moon. Things felt pretty crazy on earth in 1969, but the cosmos was friendly. Astronauts had round-trip tickets; they got home.

The world of 2013 is different: We don’t even attempt manned space programs anymore. They are too expensive, and what’s the point? Thank goodness for the plucky little Voyager I probe, which has just left the solar system, 36 years after it was launched, carrying sounds of earth, including a baby crying, a whale’s song, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”

But our political dysfunction is tuning out the cosmos. Among the casualties of the government shutdown were many of the world’s largest radio telescopes, operated by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Turned off because of lack of funds, they stopped listening for electromagnetic signals from other galaxies and planets. “We’re really at a dead halt,” the observatory’s director Anthony Beasley told Science magazine.

The only aggressive space program these days, not surprisingly, is China’s. Late this year, the Chinese plan to launch a lunar rover, called “Chang’e 3,” which would be the first spacecraft to make a soft landing on the moon’s surface in 37 years. The Chinese are planning a manned mission to the moon sometime after 2020, and subsequently, to Mars. The U.S. has abandoned that dream.

What sparkles in this shutdown season is the prominence of foreign-born directors in making the few memorable Hollywood films that break through box-office formulas to create real art. Cuaron, a Mexican director who earlier made “Children of Men” and “Y Tu Mama Tambien,” is an obvious example. He’s joined by Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian who directed the remarkable 2010 film “Incendies,” and the recent big-budget release “Prisoners.” At the top of my list is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who directed “Babel,” “21 Grams” and “Biutiful,” three superb films about immigrants in our borderless world.

Images sometimes capture particular periods in history. The unreachable green light, beckoning from across the bay in “The Great Gatsby,” has become a symbol of the yearning of America in the 1920s. Maybe tumbling helplessly in space is how we will remember life in October 2013.

David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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