Published Wednesday, October 16, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 4:41 pm
David Ignatius: ‘Lost in space’ feeling is new normal

“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.

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. “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.

Contact the writer:

Beau McCoy calls Pete Ricketts a 'convenient conservative' for immigration stance
Police ID body found near 36th, Seward Streets
Agreement reached to end dog racing at Bluffs Run at end of 2015
World champion Crawford's promoter working to have title defense at CenturyLink Center
Hail, strong winds, heavy rain hit south-central Nebraska
Video: Stothert says Crossroads project is 'full speed ahead,' but she won't support bond issue
'Fairly old' human skull found in Mills County
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
Omaha crash victim, 19, had touched many lives
Firefighters take on 'fully engulfed barn fire'
Council Bluffs school board approves new district headquarters
Officials announce effort to lure more veterans to Nebraska
SB 132nd Street lane closed
Shane Osborn grabs several endorsements
New public employee pay data: Douglas, Lancaster, Sarpy Counties, plus utilities
Database: How much did Medicare pay your doctor?
Omaha area may get 1 inch of rain tonight
Gov. Heineman vetoes bill to ease restrictions on nurse practitioners
Nebraska banking and finance director to retire
Waitress who served alcohol to teen before fatal crash gets jail time, probation
Owners of exotic dance bar deny prostitution allegations
More Nebraskans are electing to vote early
A day after Ricketts endorsement, Ted Cruz backs Sasse for Senate
Some city streets remain closed
Nebraska's U.S. Senate candidates stick to familiar topics at Omaha forum
< >
Kelly: Started at a dining room table, Home Instead thriving at 20 with $1B in annual revenue
The idea that Paul Hogan had studied and then hatched at his mother's table was that older people, rather than moving in with relatives or to an assisted-living center, would much prefer to stay home instead.
Breaking Brad: Nebraska GOP candidates unified against naked squirrels
Some of these Nebraska campaigns are tilting pretty far right. At a recent forum, there was a consensus that we need to ban public dancing and clothe naked squirrels in public parks.
Breaking Brad: Inside the mind of a 99-year-old real estate agent
I saw an article about a 99-year-old real estate agent who's still working. “This house is extra special. It has indoor toilets!”
Breaking Brad: Into the claw machine! Florida kid follows Lincoln kid's lead
In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a child climbed inside a claw machine. Hey, Florida kid: Nobody likes a copycat.
Breaking Brad: Even Chuck Hassebrook's throwing mud!
The Nebraska campaigns have turned so ugly, Democrat Chuck Hassebrook lobbed unfounded accusations at an imaginary opponent.
Deadline Deal thumbnail
Tokyo Sushi
$5 for $10 or $10 for $20 toward All-You-Can-Eat Sushi Purchase
Buy Now
< >
Omaha World-Herald Contests
Enter for a chance to win great prizes.
OWH Store: Buy photos, books and articles
Buy photos, books and articles
Travel Snaps Photo
Going on Vacation? Take the Omaha World-Herald with you and you could the next Travel Snaps winner.
Click here to donate to Goodfellows
The 2011 Goodfellows fund drive provided holiday meals to nearly 5,000 families and their children, and raised more than $500,000 to help families in crisis year round.
Want to get World-Herald stories sent directly to your home or work computer? Sign up for's News Alerts and you will receive e-mails with the day's top stories.
Can't find what you need? Click here for site map »