by Matt McKenna
Sometimes careening space debris is simply careening space debris, but other times it is a metaphor for something nearly as catastrophic back on Earth. The debris in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is, of course, the latter. Cuaron is Mexican, but he clearly takes an interest in American politics because never before has the complexities of a government shutdown been so succinctly dissected via a 3D science-fiction suspense-thriller. It is no surprise then that Gravity's U.S. release date was moved to coincide with the federal government shutdown this past October. Warner Bros. and Cuaron must have strongly felt that the struggles incurred by the characters in the film would inform the political struggle over funding the United States federal government.
The film begins with light banter amongst astronauts performing repairs on the Hubble telescope until–and this isn't a spoiler if you've seen the trailer that plays out the film's inciting incident sans editing–a cloud of debris crashes into the venerable space structure to which the film's protagonists are unfortunately attached.
And so begins the ninety-one minute exploration of the United States' broken government by way of a floating Sandra Bullock and a jetpack-strapped George Clooney. While it is certainly possible to dismiss Gravity as nothing more than an interesting filmic experiment mixing a minimal cast into a vat of computer generated graphics, this interpretation misses Cuaron's carefully placed parallels (presciently laid out years ago) between Gravity's fictional reality up in space and our actual reality down on Earth.
Most obviously, the hurtling debris that serves the role of Gravity's antagonist-with-impeccable-timing represents the legion of discretionary appropriations that Congress failed to handle in a timely fashion. As the speeding space junk threatens every structure and person in the film, so too does America's unfunded discretionary programs threaten the integrity of the United States federal government and the welfare of the people subject to that government. Indeed, just as a solar panel traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour will do irreparable damage the human body it slams into, so too will irreparable damage done to the human body that is unable to acquire adequate nourishment due to a lack of funding provided for discretionary programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children.
Now, the cynical among us–those who suspect the recent real-life conundrum over the government's budget is not the result of legislative incompetence but rather the result of calculated political inaction–will read the movie a little differently. These cynics (realists?) will wonder if our fictional astronaut heroes do not simply find themselves in their terrifying situation merely by happenstance. After all, among the film's early chaotic dialog between mission control in Houston and the astronauts in space is a bit of exposition blaming Russia, perennial nemesis of the United States, for the smashed satellite pieces speeding across Earth's lower orbit. It doesn't require a big jump to conclude that the cascading chain of satellite destruction is in fact part of a broader international struggle within the story of the film–a struggle that doesn't appear to work out especially well for any particular person or nation. Is Cuaron therefore warning us that brinksmanship between political opponents is a strategy that ultimately leads to an endgame from which no winners can possibly emerge? When we toss our systems, be they mechanical or bureaucratic, into each other with such abandon, should we expect anything other than a messy and deadly result?
If Gravity's satellite debris is analogous to the federal government's unfunded appropriations, and the Earth's orbiting space structures are the integrity of the government, what then do our protagonists–Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (Clooney)–represent? It may be tempting to view these two characters as mere delegates of the human species, simply vessels through which we can vicariously experience the terror of the situation, but the film is more incisive than that.
Cuaron spends a sizeable chunk of the film's ninety-one minute running time making sure viewers understand that Kowalski is the space-veteran and Stone is the apt space-neophyte. Yes, this is a good bit of narrative engineering–audiences will identify with Stone's timidity while Kowalski calmly provides the necessary exposition. But isn't it curious how each character's reaction to the unfolding plot reflects the American public's reaction to its own imploding government? Kowalski's unflappable pragmatism borne out of the experience of so many spacewalks matches the just-turn-off-the-TV, grin-and-bear-it attitude of Americans who remember at least one of the previous seventeen government shutdowns. Stone's initial panic mirrors the umbrage of the younger American set–the kids who are being disappointed by their government for perhaps the first (or second or third) time.
Stone does eventually find her space-legs. By analogy, Cuaron suggests that Americans who are furious over recent governmental failures will soon find their own shutdown-legs. Now that this tired legislative tragedy has finally re-run its course, these Bullock-Americans will be less impressed with future partisan struggles over funding the government, and instead be more annoyed that they were once again placed within the trajectory of the orbiting buckshot of ideological politics that ultimately results in the non-functional government we suffered through this fall.
Here's hoping we never see Gravity 2.