I just saw GRAVITY at the Directors Guild Theatre last night and I’m still exhausted from it. It’s a thrilling roller coaster with heart and humor. My kinda movie! Of course, I’m me so, while I’m still basking in the glory of Alfonso Cuaron’s cinematic achievement, I have to kick the tires and see what made it so great. I’ve heard everything from people crediting space for the movie’s success to audiences generally liking the idea of Sandra Bullock in danger. As for me, I start where I always start. So bear with me while I take you through the movie using the same methodology that we did with THE COUNSELOR: Here goes… And, oh yeah, there are [SPOILER ALERTS] by the bucketful.
In short, GRAVITY is the story of Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), a scientist content with the isolation of space after the tragic death of her daughter. Unfortunately, fate takes a turn for the worse and now she must fight against the dangers of space in order to save the life she’s stopped living.
As Michael Arndt says we should introduce characters doing the thing they love the most. In this case we meet Ryan, alone in space working on an experiment. If nothing else happened, she’d be free to live out her peaceful life away from the world avoiding her emotional pain.
The dangers of space. You can’t breathe in it. You can’t expose yourself to its extreme temperatures. And every 90 minutes you’re showered with deadly space shrapnel. It’s an awesome antagonist, on par with the dangers of the ocean in FINDING NEMO and LIFE OF PI or the island in CAST AWAY. This is a movie about surviving against the odds and the odds are very much against Ryan.
I. INCITING INCIDENT
A spy satellite is destroyed sending debris flying in all directions. Because there’s no friction in space, massive debris traveling at the speed of bullets threatens the lives of the entire space shuttle crew. Now Ryan and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are on a mission to recover the body of their fellow scientist, Aningaaq, get back to the space shuttle and return home.
WHAT’S GREAT ABOUT THAT
Ryan, who is more interested in her experiment than anything else in the beginning, is jolted awake when her precious experiment suddenly becomes the least important thing in the universe.
I always like to take a quick look at the “debate” section because it’s where writers get a chance to outthink the audience and box in their protagonists before the Second Act begins. So, when Ryan spins off into space with a dwindling supply of oxygen it’s obvious that staying in place is not a viable option. When Matt finds her and the corpse of Dr. Aningaaq and drags them to the space shuttle we see the ship has been destroyed by the debris and the crew are dead. That’s not an option either. The only option available is to brave the vacuum of space and get to the next space station. We’re locked in. And we’re locked in to exciting, eye-popping action so that’s even better.
At the beginning of the Second Act, Matt and Ryan get to know each other as they struggle to get to the Soviet space station before the next assault of debris (it’s built in that they’ll be pelted by massive debris every 90 minutes. Genius!)… and before they run out of oxygen, fuel and power. It’s here Ryan’s backstory is revealed: she lost a child and lives with the pain every minute. Matt, the space cowboy who lives life in the now, urges her to let go and move on with her life. She can’t.
So, from that moment on, the stakes couldn’t be any clearer. And y’all know how much I likes me some clear stakes. They fall into three categories:
1) EXTERNAL STAKES
To live or die. There are no greater set of stakes than that. Any time you can boil something down to living or dying, you’re on good turf.
The obstacle is that Ryan doesn’t know if a life in pain is worth living.
2) EMOTIONAL STAKES
Along with living or dying there’s the question of whether or not Ryan will find a way to deal with the death of her daughter and move on. The external stakes pull us through the story. Emotional stakes give us a reason to root for the external goals to be achieved.
3) MAGICAL STAKES
Ryan doesn’t believe in a higher power. Her life’s tragedy may have something to do with that. On top of this she has no inspirational stories to tell. But this journey is so inspirational that it renews our faith in a higher power.
Faith is as important a part of great storytelling as anything else you’ll ever write. I’ll be covering this in detail in a later post.
They arrive at the Soviet space station. Out of power, oxygen and fuel. After the quiet of space, we’re introduced to another dynamic action sequence. This one results in Ryan having to let go of Matt who drifts off into space. To his almost certain death. He makes Ryan promise him that she’ll live. Note: Her will to live (or lack thereof) has been in question all along. She halfheartedly promises.
Now, in the womb-like safety of the Russian space station, we get the feeling that Ryan would be content to live out her life in this cocoon. Alone, with nothing to remind her of the pain she left behind. But cruel fate intervenes once again and the damaged space station catches on fire. Now, for the first time, Ryan is the only person who can save herself. By the time she has piloted the life pod to safety (something she’s failed numerous times in training) and disconnected it from the parachute tethering it to the station, we start to see the new improved Ryan. One willing to fight for a life worth living. Good stuff, right? Meaningful action.
III. END OF TWO
A mile from safety. Ryan’s fuel runs out and she can’t get to a Chinese space station with the only functioning life pod remaining. It’s her last chance and now she’s stranded.
SUPERFREAK #1: Matt returns! He tells Ryan a few jokes and gives her the secret recipe to save herself. But, alas, it’s all been a dream. Matt is gone but the information he’s given Ryan will save her. She’s had it in herself all along. Yes, DUMBO and KUNG FU PANDA fans, the secret is that there is no secret.She gives up, turns off the oxygen and prepares to die, until–
I labeled this “#1″ because, in this movie, all of the stakes have their own Superfreak moments. This moment takes care of her EXTERNAL STAKES. She has a way to get back home. She’s just got to hustle. For those looking for the gold star here, the end of Act Two serves as the SETBACK #1.
Through a brilliant series of maneuvers involving fire extinguisher, Ryan sticks her finger in the eye of the vastness of space and gets to the escape pod. But, oh no!, all of the buttons are in Chinese! She’ll have to guess her way through a task she couldn’t achieve when all of the buttons were written in English.
As she hurls toward the earth in the damaged pod, the chances of being cremated by the friction of the atmosphere seems imminent.
Once she resigns herself to the chances of dying she’s free to live for the first time. In a cathartic moment, she tells Matt to say hello to her daughter and tell her she loves her.
EMOTIONAL STAKES resolved.
The pod lands safely in the ocean but, when Ryan opens its door, water floods in and the pod sinks like a stone. She breaks free but the suit pulls her to the bottom of the ocean.
She’s a fighter now. She sheds the space suit that is weighing her down, swims to the water’s surface and takes in a deep lungful of earth air (which should, technically, give her the bends but who cares). She swims to the shore, kneads the sand in her hands and says “Thank you.”
MAGICAL STAKES resolved… unless you think she’s thanking NASA.
Cut to black. Hold for applause. And the Oscar goes to.
When we contrast this movie with one like THE COUNSELOR, I hope it’s easier for you to see why it’s so important to tell stories with clear intentions and obstacles, thrilling dynamics and Superfreakish endings.
Next up, we’re back to our outline. Until then, I had a hell of a time condensing this movie into a “one liner”. Take a whack at it yourself and see how you do. Telling condensed versions of stories is great practice for telling longer ones.