“GRAVITY” Falls Down, Can’t Get Up

Pretty much the emotion felt for the whole of GRAVITY
(pencil sketch by me).

For a long time, I avoided seeing the film “GRAVITY.”  Just about everyone said it was great and, usually when that happens, and I see the movie, it isn’t great.  Plus, from the trailer, it seemed like it was a one Plot-Point-Movie.  I hate PPMs because I feel like the writers have made very little effort to construct an interesting story.  All they had to do was come up with one cool idea to strand a character somewhere or in some situation and then let what ever natural obstacles exist do their job.

There was a movie a few years ago about an attractive, white scuba diving couple who find themselves stranded at sea without a boat or so much as a piece of wood to float on.  I didn’t see this movie either because I thought, short of flashbacks, how could this be anything but emotional-torture porn?  How boring and depressing to sit through something that can end in one of two ways.  They die or they don’t.  The former being completely depressing and the latter being completely unrealistic.

I would have accepted the former in “GRAVITY” but instead, what I got was the latter.  In fact, I checked how many minutes into the film I was when Sandra Bullock’s character definitely would have died if the film were as realistic as promised.  14 minutes in is where she finds herself tumbling out into space.  If you know anything about the physics of space and space-walks, it’s probably really hard to accept the reality of her surviving this death-summersault into space as anything realistic.

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How “GRAVITY” Really Let Me Down

When I first heard about this film (I think it was io9.com ejaculating about it–both literally and literarily), they said that the filmmaker was going for hyper-realism.  Their example of this is that, in the film, there is no sound in space!

Having no sound in space IS cool–I am so tired of scifi films portraying space as being capable of carrying sound waves.  So, I give GRAVITY some credit for not doing that.  But soundless space was pretty much where the hyper-realism ends.

That fourteenth minute isn’t even where the realism ends–it’s just where Bullock’s character definitely would have died.  The last bit of realisticness comes, probably way back in the third or fourth minute of the movie.

In the first scene of the movie, we meet our hero, the female astronaut played by Sandra Bullock.  We also meet the happy-go-lucky Indian astronaut who is having such a fun time in space, we just know he’s going to be the first to die.  We also meet a veteran space pilot played by George Clooney who is zipping around the space shuttle like he’s a teenager who just got his space-jetpack license.  I’ve since learned that the jetpack his character is using is identified as a prototype (probably in a single line of dialog that I missed) and is not the same one NASA actually used in real life shuttle missions.  Regardless, don’t waste fuel, George.  Come on.

What was that about Hyper-Realism?

So, a guy having way to much fun in space ends up dead (seriously, acting like that in space, he pretty much deserved it).  Then we have the fakey-fictiony jetpack.  But it’s a prototype, fine. I can accept that.  But should he still be pulling space-donuts with it in orbit?!?!  I mean, what if he needs the extra fuel later?  I mean, it’s _SPACE_.

WHAT IF SOMETHING BAD HAPPENS?

Of course, it does and later it’s a plot point that he runs out of fuel for the thing.  So…. dumbest space captain EVER.

And that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.  There’s all manner of unrealism in this film–from really obvious crap like all the absurdly horrible, unlucky events of the film happening in one day, but also nuts-n-bolts stuff that would essentially make the film’s story untellable.  Yes.  Untellable.  That’s how inaccurate it is. For instance, when Bullock’s character is somehow able to get from the space shuttle to the ISS which orbits much higher than the shuttle usually does.

The thing is, this could have been explained by having her go about getting from shuttle orbit to ISS orbit.  They just didn’t bother with it.  The thing is, without this explanation, the story is completely unrealistic.

There’s even really nerdy science they got wrong like space station doors opening outward.  Why would you build any space-based structure with doors that open outward?!?  It’s SPACE, man,  atmospheric pressure is coming from the inside, pressing out, into the vacuum of space.  So, you know when Bullock’s character opens the door a couple of times in the film and gets whipped around so hard that it looks like she almost breaks her spine?  Yeah, that’s why no one builds them that way.  I mean, duh.

Would You Like a Side-Order of Sexism with your Unrealism, Sir?

One thing I really like to see in a movie is a strong female lead character.  In theory, for that reason, I should be supportive of the film GRAVITY.  It’s about space, which is great, and it has a female astronaut as the lead.  Awesome… on paper.

I had a similar problem with the heroes in “THE AVENGERS” and “CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER.”  The problem is they’re just competent enough to survive letting a bunch of bad stuff happen to themselves.  To put it in another way, they’re so incompetent that it almost kills them.

The problem here is much worse than in the Marvel films as Bullock doesn’t even seem to have been properly trained.  Sure, sometimes she is able to fall back on training, but too many times she seems completely out of her element.  Real astronauts are trained for quite a few disasters and because of this training, they can remain completely chill in the worst situation.  They react to the shit hitting the fan with the casual grace of answering the phone.  Yet, Bullock’s character seemed completely not that.

Why was she even allowed into space if she didn’t know how to calm herself down when she started spinning out, into space?

So, how often do we get to see (allegedly) realistic space films with (allegedly) competent female astronauts in them?  Virtually never.  When we finally do, she’s an idiot.  Nice.

On top of that, she’s not just an astronaut who happens to be a woman, she’s a mom.  Or, was a mom.  Her daughter died and she’s still dealing with the emotional trauma.  When’s the last time you saw an astronaut movie where a male astronaut was still dealing with the death of his offspring?  When’s the last time you saw a movie where male astronauts were dealing with any problem but the ones at hand?

Once again, she’s not just an astronaut who happens to be female, but a female astronaut who has a serious emotional trauma in her past that she has yet to get past.  I am not belittling this as a “thing,” in general, I even think it would be a perfectly good plot element in the right film.  But giving a woman this kind of stereotypically female “depth” is distracting and does, in fact, make it less realistic that she was able to survive.  I mean, when guy astronauts get into trouble in movies, they focus on the problem.  They might mention their families but it’s usually in passing and they’re more likely to survive because of that focus.  So, why portray Bullock’s character as having these issues?

Then again, I guess it’s OK, since, you know how chicks are, rite?  All their baggage and emotions and stuff?

Pah!  Girls…

And that possibly subconscious homage to the underwear scene in “ALIEN” really stuck out to me.  If I’m an astronaut in space who is having a really shitty day, the last thing I’m going to do is climb out of my space suit and float around a space station in just my boxer briefs and a tank-top.  I’ve heard people say this sequence was not gratuitous.

Really?

When’s the last time you saw a male astronaut strip down to his tighty-whities and float about while ignoring obvious fires threatening his very life?  (Seriously–how the hell could she not see that fire?!?  She’s an idiot AND she’s BLIND!)  The point of that sequence was to sexualize Bullock’s character.  Why else would she be doing it?  That kind of behavior makes no sense in the middle of trying to survive a serious and obvious streak of bad luck in space.

Once again we see that her character probably shouldn’t have been allowed to go into space in the first place if she’s thinking like this.

“OH, sure–I just narrowly survived dying ten different ways in the last 60 minutes all related to space–which I am still in!  What I’d like to do is get out of this pesky, life-protecting space suit and float around with just my undies on!”

If this is what America’s astronauts are really like, I can actually see why NASA shut down the manned space program.  

How I Would Have Kept GRAVITY Afloat

First off, ditch the “worst day ever” structure that so many films use these days.  Films like this throw obstacle after obstacle at the lead characters because they think that makes for a good story. Sure, this story structure makes it exciting, but it’s hideously unrealistic and, in the case of GRAVITY, at least for me, just distracting in its absurdity.

A friend of mine who saw this film in the theater said she came out with back pain because the film was so intense.  I don’t think even the best films should leave their audience with back pain.  Especially when the film is a 90-minute-long one-trick pony.

What you do is give the character problems they can actually solve–and let them solve at least some of those problems without something else immediately going wrong.  Let Bullock’s character have a win or two over her predicament.  Give her (and the audience) a chance to hope so that it makes sense that she (and the audience) doesn’t just give up (as was my urge several times while watching the film).  Also, give her time between predicaments–time to enjoy her wins.  Let her character arc breathe and let us come to care about her as something other than an abstract human in perpetual trouble.

The truth is, I watched this movie in a way that no movie should be watched–on an iPhone.  I did it this way because I didn’t want to be biased by the effects.  I’ve had people tell me that this is an “effects” film and I shouldn’t get too hung up on story.  But remember back at the beginning where I talk about how GRAVITY was billed as a hyper-realistic film?  Well, it wasn’t. So what good are effects if the allegedly realistic story could never actually happen?  If it was a more traditional science fiction film, then they could have just had fun with it by throwing in aliens or completely new tech instead of pretending to get it right but fudging a shit-ton of details.  Not doing this way ultimately makes the filmmakers look really kind of stupid.

So, in a nutshell, how would I have saved Bullock’s character?

Put simply, I’d have her deal with problems realistically.  The problems she deals with in the film, all seemed perfectly plausible.  The solutions, however, were reached far too quickly and were far too contrived and implausible.  I’d let the audience see how competent she is at problem solving and allow the audience to get to know her in ways other than the “oh, shit! What do I do now?” mode she seems to be in for nearly the whole film.

I’d also have the film take place over a longer period of time.  How much story time do you think passed from the beginning to the end of GRAVITY?  I couldn’t tell, but it felt like it was almost real time.  It was probably more like two or three hours.  I would have it take place over a few days, at least.  Once she leaves the lower orbit of the shuttle she should be out of the way of the debris field and that should afford her, and the audience, time to breathe.

Of course, I’d never have written GRAVITY in the first place.  I don’t like space movies about how dangerous space is.  Essentially, GRAVITY is just a really boring version of the tales ancients told each other–the ones featuring sea serpents and mermaids and other dangers of space–er–the sea.

I’d have told a story about how going into space is humankind’s destiny.  Sure, the “space is dangerous” message would be there, but that’s the only message in GRAVITY.  I’d also have a female astronaut who knows what she is doing but because space is so dangerous, still manages to find problems that challenge her ability to survive.  I would want people coming out of my movie with the urge to go into space.

Hey, neat!  I would have written INTERSTELLAR.  (Not that it’s perfect, but if it wins no Oscars, I will be super disappointed.)

Time for the Ultimate Sadface for GRAVITY

The ultimate sadface for this film is that Alfonso Cuarón is held up like this amazing filmmaker.  What he made, in GRAVITY, is an amazing piece of art, but it’s not a good movie.  I felt that his CHILDREN OF MEN was also wildly overrated but I liked it more than I did this.  Why?  Because characters make your story go.  Without someone to get behind, feel for, and identify with, your movie will not stick to your audience when they leave the theater.  Who wants to make something that doesn’t stick to its audience?  Who wants to sit through something that doesn’t leave you with anything but back pains?

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