I watched GRAVITY (Alfonso Cuarón 2013) again recently. Why? The film's astonishing visual impact. I think Gravity is one of if not the most phenomenal technical productions in film history. I am also fascinated with all things space. 2001 A Space Odyssey and much science fiction and physics read when a child and a youth changed me forever. OK, and I probably fell slightly in love with Sandra Bullock when I saw her in SPEED (Jan de Bont 1994). Talking of which: I did Michael Hague’s screenwriting weekend course a year or two later. The script he picked to dissect was Graham Yost’s script for Speed. Why? Because it’s a good screenplay. A story well told.
And that brings me back to Gravity.
Watching Gravity again, I was reminded of the issues that came to mind with the screenplay when I loved the film for the first time. Some are purely screenwriting related; some overlap with science, and probably with NASA space protocols.
I wish the screenwriter/s had considered these protocols – let’s call them essentials – more closely when writing this occasionally superb screenplay. Every kilo of everything costs a ton of money to get into space. So Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) joyriding around the shuttle in his EVA jetpack while telling stories and playing Country and Western music is an unlikely scenario because he would be wasting heavy/costly fuel and air. Then astronaut Shariff (Phaldut Sharma) does the Macarena. It's unlikely. Movement and conversation – anything that expends energy and oxygen - is at a premium up there.
And the proximity of the Chinese space station? Right.
When cinematic science-fiction tethers itself to science-fact like this, limitations are placed on what can happen physically (but not emotionally). Science-fantasies like STAR WARS or STAR TREK are free of the constraints of the physical plausible. Nothing is real, so everything is real. You get my point.
But we’re about screenwriting here, right? The screenwriters of Gravity have mission specialist Ryan Stone telling Kowalski about her dead daughter while being towed towards the ISS. Stone is by now down to almost zero oxygen. I don’t think now is the time for her to be telling Kowalski stuff he would already know, and use oxygen needlessly. In fact Stone isn’t telling Kowalski stuff here. The screenwriters are telling the audience stuff. They’re doing it to fill 90 pages, create empathy for the Stone character, and to create an emotional spine. They’re also doing it because if conversation was kept NASA realistic, it would be boringly functional. And that wouldn’t have felt dramatic. But there was a middle ground. The dialogue could have been more plausible, yet remained powerfully dramatic.
A better way to have revealed Stone’s emotional substrate (her dead daughter) would have been for Stone to risk going back into the space shuttle to grab a picture of her daughter from the wreckage. Later, when she imagines Kowalski and he inspires her to live, she has this photograph in her hands because she has chosen to lay down to die with her daughter. This would have told the audience far more than lots of words would have done, and it wouldn’t have raised issues with plausibility.
Alternatively we might not even know if Stone's daughter is dead or alive. If we think her daughter is alive, that gives Stone a big reason to make it home. If this (alive or dead) is never revealed, we might see the little girl in the photograph as a metaphorical or even real child version of Stone herself. Not knowing would make us wonder. Wondering is involvement.
This is show-don’t-tell pure and simple. The best cinema there is, is inside people heads. As a screenwriter (and as a film director) that’s where you want to show your film.
So Gravity pulled in two directions. Visually, it told the audience that what they were seeing was real. And how. And how? I have little idea. Incredible. The script, however, pulled the audience in the other direction. Though at times brilliant, at others, this screenplay suspended belief at an intuitive level.
Ideally, a film or TV screenplay and the production should be pulling in the same direction: towards 100% audience buy-in. And then more people will buy more cinema tickets.
And the Country and Western music as Kowalski confronts the infinite - the great truth - the greatest fear of all: to die, and to die alone. Well it didn’t work for me. But that’s a matter of taste. Brave to the end and glib to the end are different things. Some profundity at this point would have given Kowalski’s death – and thus the film – so much plausibility and weight.
But overall. As a production. Wow.
And wow again.