Gravity as a story

If you’re looking for a film that exemplifies the idea that scripts should keep putting the protagonist into even more difficult situations and that each respite is merely brief, then go see Gravity.

It is also a textbook example almost of the Save the Cat process and of McKee’s storytelling in three parts, so if you want a film to analyse that has a minimum of characters to focus on then this is it. It is also a damn good story and the first film I’ve seen that’s worth seeing in 3D since Avatar, and the first film I wish I’d seen at the Imax.

Gravity - space lift
Gravity – zero to hero

Reversals of fortune

First of all, there will be a couple of spoilers here, though I’ll keep them minimal. What I like about Gravity is that it’s basically a two-actor play in space – George Clooney and Sandra Bullock are the only characters you’ll see (alive) and they carry the whole film.

The advantage as a film to study is that you aren’t distracted by others, and the admiration for the screenwriter and actors is that just a couple of characters have to carry the story.

Gravity and survival

It’s not a complicated story – it is about survival: the two astronauts’ space shuttle gets wiped out by debris and it’s down to Clooney and Bullock to escape via a space station Soyuz escape craft before the debris returns and wipes them out.

With each scene the tension is raised and every time the characters think they are going to be okay, something happens that raises the stakes or thwarts their plans.

This is an excellent example of what I call ‘parachuting’:

There was a great gag in the TV show Hee Haw that sums up the idea of reversals. A guy is telling a story about a man who fell out of a plane. His friend says: “Oh no, he fell out of a plane? That’s bad!” And the first guy says: “Well, he had a parachute.” So the second guy says: “Oh, that’s good.” But then the first guy says: “Yeah, but the parachute didn’t open.” And so it goes on: the guy had a second parachute, but that one had a rip in it, but it was OK because there was a haystack below him but then it turned out the haystack had a pitchfork sticking out of it. And so on. Action sequences need this constant reversal of fortune.

Gravity’s beats

So Gravity parachutes, what else is it worth studying for? Well it is a clear example of following a Zack Snyder’s Save the Cat beatsheet, that’s for sure.

Not in his strict order – Bullock ‘saving the cat’ and resting/playing are told, not shown out of order – but the mid-point raises the stakes, she goes from wants to needs at the this point, there is a whiff of death and all seems lost after the bad guys (or bad elements) close in.

There is even a physical storming of castles complete with booby traps.

What does Gravity do wrong?

I won’t say it does things wrong, but some are a bit tired.

To make Bullock more maternal she has a medical job – and no one I spoke to had any idea how that is important on the Hubble telescope, unless her equipment is part of a joint NSA-Obamacare plot to spy on US citizens’ health – and she has a dead child.

Yes, just like that other spacewoman, Ripley of Aliens fame. The wants bit and what I learn isn’t too clear – it is that we should… ‘fight to survive’, I guess, which is not really a new message.

And a noble suicide seems to have been put in despite some other options. Overall though, Gravity is a good romp and a good example of a film to analyse.

Will it win any Oscars? Well those actors do carry it, it is visually impressive and the script does keep moving, but the lack of real or accessible character development may hold it back.

But go see Gravity, and go see it in 3D in as big a screen as you can.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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