[Don’t read this review if you haven’t seen Gravity. But when you have, because you should, come back here and let’s talk.]
Television watchers are experiencing a renaissance in storytelling. Shows like Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Shameless, Friday Night Lights, Dexter, The Newsroom, have taken the art of storytelling to new heights. By carefully focusing on character, writers have developed new techniques to create highly addictive forms of fiction. This has revolutionized television. Character driven storytelling has always been preeminent in novels, and prominent in movies, but television was always seen as a vast wasteland of lowbrow entertainment. Now I like television better than movies, or even books.
So what is television doing that movies aren’t? Movies often seem like a vast wasteland of teenage schlock. CGI unreality, over the top action, Three Stooges type violence, and silly premises that should insult grade school kids. But most of all, the characters are unbelievable. Movies aren’t about things I could actually experience. I don’t relate to their stories. Maybe kids can love superhero characters because they haven’t yet learned there aren’t any superheroes.
A week ago when watching the final episode of Breaking Bad I wondered what I would have to watch next Sunday. I remember mentally wishing I could find something that surpassed Breaking Bad in storytelling intensity. Well, I got my wish, because on Sunday night I saw Gravity, the new film starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, and directed by Alfonso Cuarón. The previews brought me to the theater with great expectations, but I wasn’t prepared by how blown away I would be by the film. While the credits were rolling I thought how Gravity set a new standard for science fiction movies.
This space story seem real. The characters felt like they could be real people. The special effects were wonderful, but not the story. This movie had the attributes of what make the current great television so much better than the movies. But what are those attributes? For one thing, there’s not a superhero in sight. Nobody is saving the world. Even though the characters are involved with extraordinary situations, they are ordinary people. Maybe we aren’t rooting for the little guy, but we are resonating with characters that are closer to ourselves.
Don’t get me wrong, Gravity isn’t literary or deep. And although Bullock and Clooney give amazing performances, their characters were almost clichés. How Gravity amazes is through simply gripping storytelling. It is a story of survival, beating tremendous odds in a harsh environment. And although Gravity wasn’t very scientific, Gravity felt very realistic. Gravity was brilliantly science fiction in the same way Gattaca had been years ago, it was about a individual overcoming tremendous adversity in a science related setting.
Although in the last couple of decades we have had more and more female action heroes, I felt while watching Sandra Bullock that Gravity represented a paradigm shift, transforming story hero from male to female. It didn’t feel like a gimmick that Ryan was a woman.
For the first hundred years of of filmmaking Ryan Stone would have been played by a male actor. Ripley set the precedent, but when Ryan pulls herself out of the muck and stands, with the camera angle from the ground looking up at her towering figure, it felt that women had finally surpassed men at their own game. It was much like Vincent beating the genetically enhanced humans when he took off into space at the end of Gattaca.
George Clooney plays the ultra-cocky space jock to a tee. Matt Kowalski is perfectly at home in a vacuum. Kowalski has the science down cold. But more than that, he is mature way beyond his boyish antics. He is an alpha male passing the baton to a female saying with total confidence, you can do this. I know most viewers won’t see this film as a feminist statement. Most girls won’t think twice about Sandra Bullock being the lead character. But in real life and in movie life, things have changed a lot in my lifetime, but not nearly enough.
The message is clear, women can fly the fighters, drive the tanks, pilot the spacecraft, command the ships, shoot the M-16s, control the telescopes, construct the skyscrapers, etc., but it’s sad that so many women have MTV ambitions, like Miley Cyrus, to wear skimpy outfits and twerk. Movies and television, the most heavy-duty of pop cultural social programming, sends the message that women can now do anything. But will they? And will we accept it?
If you think I’m making a pointless issue, then think about this. What if our two actors were cast against type. Would you have liked Sandra Bullock as the veteran space jock, and George Clooney as the mission specialist rookie? We’re still brainwashed to think George Clooney should have played Matt.
Yes, we have made women into action heroes that can shoot and kill, but action heroes aren’t believable characters, they are cartoon characters. How often are complex male roles given to female actors? Would you have believed Sandra Bullock as Matt Kowalski?
Let’s put it another way. I work at a university and the majority of the engineering and computer science students are male, and the majority of the teacher education and nursing students are female.
The role of Ryan Stone calls for a rookie, and most rookie astronauts are still male. Picking a female to play Ryan is an intentional decision to make the character to appear more helpless because we’re still conditioned to think of women as helpless, or of needing help. Gravity shows us we’re wrong. But being helpless is good in this movie, because good storytelling is about getting the audience to identify with the main character, and we’d all be essentially helpless in space.
Picking the name Ryan is an intentional choice too – Sandra Bullock is to stand in for a man. I think that was a perfect choice by the writers of Gravity. We’re cheering the stand-in for everyman who also happens to be everywoman. Not only that, we’re all identifying with her, guys and gals. While watching the movie I totally identified with Ryan Stone and not Matt Kowalski. I never had the Right Stuff, but I might could have been Ryan Stone.
Maybe next time when they make a film like Gravity, the veteran space jock will be a woman, and it will be as natural as our need for air, but for now Sandra Bullock was perfect in this role. Whatever is the magic formula for modern storytelling, Breaking Bad and Gravity have it down as well as Walter White cooks meth.
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By the way, many people are nitpicking Gravity for scientific issues. That’s cool. But don’t let it keep you from seeing and enjoying an amazing film. I was really disappointed with Neil DeGrasse Tyson because his complaints were rather lame compared to the problem of orbital mechanics. Here are some things to read, but don’t get too hung up about them. Gravity is a triumph of storytelling. Like preconceived gender roles, we still want fiction with far more excitement than actual reality. It’s hard to embrace perfect realism.
I expect gender roles to continue to evolve, and I expect incorporating realism into popular fiction to evolve too. Breaking Bad was far more realistic than such a show would have been ten years ago, but in ten years, writers who will surpass the talents of the Breaking Bad team, will create a series about cooking meth that is far more realistic. Gravity could have been just as exciting if it had been 100% scientifically accurate. And I’m not dinging it for its scientific faults. I’m just pointing out that we’re moving towards a kind of absolute realism in fiction, and that includes gender roles too.
Fact Checking Gravity
- Gravity Fact Check What the Season’s Big Movie Gets Wrong – Jeffrey Kluger Time Magazine
- Astronauts comment on Gravity over at Entertainment Weekly
- Gravity Gets Much of the Science Right
- How Realistic Is the Movie Gravity?
JWH – 10/11/13