So, we saw Gravity today, and it really impressed me. Seriously, it was the most intense movie I have seen in recent memory. If you haven’t seen it, I really recommend going to see it in a theater rather than waiting for the small screen version. As Douglas Adams said, “Space is big” and the theater really enhanced the feeling.
I’m going to keep this post of spoiler-free as possible and read it over to make sure I don’t give anything away that you won’t see in the trailer. The story is a simple survival tale, a pair of astronauts are stranded in near Earth orbit after a disaster on a shuttle mission and have to find a way to get back to Earth alive.
Sandra Bullock should win every Oscar there is for her performance, which is not to say that George Clooney is bad, just that it’s her movie. Unfortunately the Academy tends to be snobs about “science fiction”–which Gravity really isn’t. I know that people from NASA have commented on the ways in which the film doesn’t match current space technology, but it’s damned close. As a non-engineer space geek I was quite impressed.
What I realized a few hours after we left the theater, as I was going through and dissecting the film in my head, is that it’s a very formulaic film–and that’s a good thing.
As writers, we tend to use “formulaic” to dismiss works. Certainly we have all experienced our share of “paint by number” works–books and movies that seem to have been built on an assembly line. I make it a habit not to denigrate specific artists in this blog, but there are some writers who have made a career out of following a particular outline on every novel.
What we tend to forget is that formulas are reused because they work. When they are used by an artist with a clear vision and skill in storytelling, they can work extremely well, and that’s what I feel Alfonso Cuaron has done with Gravity.
There is a rhythm to survival stories–an opening sequence to familiarize the audience with the characters, then disaster strikes, and then an escalating sequence of challenges for the characters to overcome. Each incident draws us closer to the characters, so that their triumphs and fears become our own. The story pushes the characters, forces them to do more than they believe that they can, and when it is done well the audience shares that and we are left feeling that we, too, can do more than we believe.
Gravity is (no pun intended) an uplifting film. Bullock and Clooney are faced with the most hostile environment imaginable, and we are lost there with them. I walked out the theater with a terrifying sense of perspective–after that, my troubles seem very small indeed.
As a writer, however, the lesson that I took away is that doing something new isn’t nearly as impressive as doing something old well. Human against Nature is one of the classic stories, and it’s a story that never gets old. It can be done poorly (again, I will refrain from giving examples, but you will have no problem supplying your own) but that’s the fault of the artist, not of the formula.
As writers, that’s something that we should remember. When penning an adventure tale or a love story we should be aware of the formula that our type of story tends to follow, but not as something to be avoided. Rather it is something to be used, to be understood and celebrated as a contract with the audience. Like formalism in poetry, formalism in fiction is prescriptive, not restrictive. We can choose to follow it or to leave it, but we must be aware of where the road has been taken before in order to blaze our own trails.
Even when done poorly, the formula itself has a certain power in its familiarity, to lead the audience where we want them to go.
When done well, it’s breathtaking.