DAVID IGNATIUS: Drifting in the cosmos

“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.

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 sodden political dysfunction is tuning out the cosmos. Among the casualties of this month’s 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.

The only aggressive space program these days, not surprisingly, is China’s. The Chinese are planning a manned mission to the moon sometime after 2020, and subsequently, to Mars. The U.S. has abandoned that dream.

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’ email address is davidignatius@washpost.com.