Falling Back to Earth

“Gravity” is a farewell to the space program as we knew it.

Reality, as we know, can often feel more boring than fiction. While NASA’s Space Shuttle program ended without further incident or loss of life, it meant that the orbiters got to finish out their lives by fading into history—slowly and sadly crawling their way into the museums & science centers where they will forevermore gather dust and bore schoolchildren. Children who likely will never harbor quite the same feelings for those great machines as you or I do.

On screen, reality can always take a back seat. In Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity,” we can imagine the setting is some kind of parallel universe, where the space program we know and love hasn’t quite wrapped up. Where shuttle “Explorer” goes on carrying out the duties that you and I grew up learning shuttles do—in this case, servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. The first 15 minutes of the film purposely remind us of the glory days of the shuttle missions—as if to say “remember when humans could do all this cool stuff?”

When catastrophe strikes, we watch as one by one mankind’s orbital efforts fall apart and burn away in the atmosphere. The film has much to say about its main character and her own demons, but it also says much about humanity’s struggle to step off of our tiny home and explore in the darkness, and the emotional connection we feel to the people and machines that enable us to do so.

After learning of the Shuttle program’s planned retirement many years ago, I could not help but feel as though a favorite television show had been abruptly cancelled, and a beloved story had been brought to an untimely end. Not because of tragedy and not because of success… but because of politics and budgets. It was unfair. It offered up little closure.

I suppose a similar love letter could have been written to Apollo, after the final moon mission closed up shop and shoved off for home. But at the time, no one felt that humanity had reached the end of our journey to space. Instead, things were only getting started as we reached out from beyond our own gravity and stepped into the light of the sun.

“Gravity,” among its many other layers, captures the sense that mankind has in some way come tumbling back to Earth—only in Cuarón’s universe, we did so not because we gave up and not because we ran out of funding, but because perhaps we had reached too high and for too long, and the sun had melted our wings.