Premise: An astronaut finds herself fighting for her life when the space shuttle is destroyed during a space walk.
About: Alfonso Cuaron is paving his way towards becoming the best director in the world. The Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban director is known for his long takes that leave fellow industry folks shaking their heads in awe. But he’s gone to a new level with his new film, setting up dozens of never-ending shots in space, with the camera often drifting instead of cutting, leaving you wondering, “How the heck did he do that?” Gravity stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and came out this weekend. It WAY over-performed, grossing 55 million dollars.
Writers: Alfonso Cuaron and Jonas Cuaron (his brother)
Details: 90 minutes
Why do you make it so difficult for me?
You have one of the greatest directors in the world directing your film. You have cutting edge special effects. You invented new equipment to make your movie (who does that besides James Cameron??). You’re one of the only films in existence that can claim its use of 3-D actually made the movie better. From a macro sense, you’re everything movies should be. You’re new. You’re different. You’re taking chances. You’re showing the audience something they’ve never seen before. In short, you’ve made going to the movies exciting.
Why does it feel like you missed the mark?
Missed the mark??? Carson, are you crazy? This movie was a tour de force, a cinematic opus, a cumberbatch of movement, frenzy, and Clooney. It was a pan fried chocolate peanut butter cup dipped in caramel and served on top of free-range ice cream. It was freaking awesome!
Yeah, but, but, but the script! The script I say! I loved watching Gravity. But I never CONNECTED to Gravity. I was always spinning just out of its orbit, desperately trying, just like Sandra Bullock, to feel something. Yet I couldn’t. Why? Why couldn’t I love this???
In order to explain this, you have to understand what we’re dealing with. And since I pretty awesomely summarized the plot of Gravity in my script review, I’m going to re-post it here:
Ryan Stone is a young medical engineer who never planned on becoming an astronaut. In fact, she had a job as a regular engineer down on earth as little as eight months ago. But now – right now – she’s up on the space shuttle, fixing one of the many “panels” that always seem to need fixing up in space. There are a few other astronauts drifting nearby as she does this, the most important of whom is Matt Kowalski, as veteran an astronaut as Ryan is a newbie. He’s bummed out because this might be his last mission.
I got news for you Matt. Ain’t no “might be” here. It *is* your last mission.
That’s because the next most abundant thing in space besides panels are satellites, and those wascally Russians just blew up one of theirs. The aftermath creates a chain reaction of spraying debris that hits multiple satellites, which also end up exploding, and all of a sudden thousands of pieces of debris are heading straight towards the space shuttle.
(lots of spoilers follow) Before the group can react, the debris destroys the shuttle and everyone on it except for Ryan and Matt. The two must then make their way down to the International Space Station – in their space suits only – before they run out of air and before this debris field destroys the space station as well. Along the way, poor Matt has to sacrifice himself to keep Ryan alive and the next thing you know, this girl who didn’t know the first thing about space eight months ago is drifting through it with no communication and next-to-no experience, desperately trying to find a way to survive this.
Everything that can go wrong does go wrong as the movie becomes a series of near death experiences. Ryan must jump from point to point – whether it be to a vessel, a station, or an oxygen tank – and survive long enough to make the journey to the next point after that (and so on). Each destination is accompanied by dangerous debris, dropping oxygen, and the likely chance that wherever she’s trying to go might not be there. Think Apollo 13, but with the odds stacked 1 million times higher against you, if that’s possible.
Okay, I don’t mean to keep bringing up the power of GSU, I really don’t. But this script has it in spades. Goal – GET TO SAFETY. Stakes – If you don’t, you die. Urgency – Always running out of oxygen, always running out of time. This kept Gravity moving at a brisk pace. And really, when you think about it, it wouldn’t have worked any other way. This movie took place in real time. No time cuts allowed. Under those circumstnaces, if you don’t have goals, stakes, and urgency, your script is going to taste like one drawn out piece of boring meat. So kudos for the strong use of GSU.
But where I really thought Cuaron excelled was in the obstacles category. When you send your main character after a goal, your job is to place lots of obstacles in front of that goal. You gotta make it hard for them or else it’ll be boring. I mean, what if, after the space shuttle blew up, a Russian shuttle flew by, snatched up Ryan, and brought her back to earth? Would that have been an interesting movie? My guess is no. Unless Ryan and the strapping Russian cosmonaut got into a steamy BDSM affair on the way back to earth a la 50 Shades Of Grey. But I’m thinking that movie MAY have been attacked for a shift in tone.
Instead, Cuaron provides a TON of obstacles. And not just any obstacles. Really freaking difficult obstacles. Ryan and Matt have to steer themselves to the Russian space station with 5 ounces of thrust left. Ryan must get there with only 3% oxygen left. Once she gets inside of the station, there’s a fire. Once in the escape vessel, she doesn’t have any fuel. Once she gets to the Chinese vessel, she must pilot the ship with everything labeled in Chinese. (SUPER MAJOR SPOILERS) Even when she finally gets to earth and lands in the water, the module sinks and she’s going to drown. Even when she GETS OUT of the module. Her suit weighs her down so she can’t swim to the surface.
So it’s not just placing the obstacles in front of your protagonist. It’s making them REALLY DIFFICULT obstacles. That’s why Gravity is so intense. Nothing was easy for our heroine. And it’s a great thing to remember when you write your own script.
But the same problem I had with the Gravity script doomed the Gravity film. Well, I shouldn’t say “doomed.” But kept it from becoming great.
Ryan, our protagonist, wasn’t very interesting.
And they tried. They really tried. She had a kid who died. You can’t say characters with dead children don’t have depth. But man, it just felt… I don’t know, false. I never really believed that her kid died. It felt like a band-aid, one of those things we writers add because we THINK it makes our characters deep, but it actually backfires because it feels so cliché and easy.
That’s not to say Cuaron’s job was easy. I always say that every script has its own challenges, its own unique issues that no writer has had to deal with before. And Gravity had some tough things to maneuver around. It was in space the whole time and our main character is in a space suit floating around for most of the movie. Besides her conversations with Matt, there isn’t really an opportunity to develop her. You can’t cut away because we’re not dealing with other characters. You can’t time jump because we’re telling this in real time. You can’t do flashbacks because that would defeat the whole purpose of us feeling like we were stuck in space.
So the only way to develop the character is through her conversations with Matt and the choices she makes. Trying to develop a character via dialogue is really hard. Someone can talk about the pain they feel cause their kid died, but without us ever knowing that kid or seeing that kid, it’s kinda hard to care, as terrible as that sounds.
I mean imagine in Castaway (another one-man show) if we would’ve started the movie on the airplane. We never would’ve met Chuck’s girlfriend. And then, once on the island, we would’ve shown him looking at the picture of her to develop some depth to him, and it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well because we never actually MET his girlfriend. That made her a real person that we really cared about. With Gravity, you don’t get that. And so I never really believed it or cared about it.
And this affected everything! Because her entire character was built off of her finally being able to let go of the past, represented by not giving up. That’s why character development is so important. It affects your screenplay in ways you don’t even think about. You’re thinking, “Okay, this scene where she’s trying to decide if she wants to keep fighting or not is going to be so compelling!” But it isn’t, because we’re not affected by the reason she’s thinking about giving up. We never got on board with that thirty pages ago.
But an even bigger problem, for me at least, was the TONE of Ryan’s character. She was just so down. She didn’t have any personality. She was flat. And it’s hard to get excited by that kind of character, to care about that kind of character. I felt this way in the script and I felt it here. Ryan was just not a very interesting character. And I’m finally understanding why so many actresses publicly passed over this part. There’s nothing here. I mean look at her opening scene. She’s changing panels! We learn nothing about the woman other than that she really wants to change panels. And that’s about as much character development as we get for another 30 minutes.
I think Cauron would argue that that’s who she is. She probably became an astronaut to escape the pain of her real life, to be out in the middle of nowhere where she can only worry about mundane things like changing panels. And that’s fine. But I just thought it made the character boring. And the thing is, when you strip away all that craziness that happens to Ryan, what you have is a character piece. This has to be a character journey if we’re going to care about her making it through. And the overly vague backstory of a dead daughter just didn’t do it for me.
The thing is, this movie is such a f*cking amazing piece of cinema and Cuaron is such an amazing filmmaker that he’s able to overcome this issue and still make this movie worth watching. If you like movies, you have no reason not to see Gravity. But being the perfectionist I am, I wanted more. I didn’t want to just be moved technically, I wanted to be moved emotionally. And it didn’t happen.
[ ] what the hell did I just watch?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the price of admission (3-D if you can afford it)
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Sometimes we pick flaws for our characters without thinking about WHAT KIND OF PERSON that flaw makes our character. We’re so excited to give our character a flaw (screenwriting books say this is good so YAY that we succeeded!) that we’re not aware it’s bullying our character into a certain personality. So say you decide, “I want to make my character unable to connect with people. That’s going to be his flaw.” Not a bad flaw to explore. But you realize, then, that your character will likely be quiet, stand-offish and introverted. Those are not qualities that make a character fun to watch. So are you really okay with that? By giving Ryan the character flaw that she can’t move past her child’s death, you’re also making her sad and depressing most of the time. Is that really the kind of character you want to write? Just make sure that when you’re coming up with your protagonist’s flaw, the resulting personality is something you like.