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 has 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.