In Space No One Can Hear You Kill The Puppy

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.

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About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to In Space No One Can Hear You Kill The Puppy

  1. Sue says:

    Excellent Points! I’m glad I’m not the only one who looks at film as a vehicle to write better. As to formulas, yes films are written to a script. One of my problems was, and still may be, no plot. After my screen writing class this spring I finally had the formula, and am now using it to write a novel. Don’t know if it works yet but it’s getting there.

    Glad to know you recommend Gravity. I haven’t seen it yet.

    And there are no new stories, just old ones told differently

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Just curious, do screenwriting classes still teach Syd Field’s three act structure? That’s what I tend to use to pace my novels (although the whole “figure out what’s going to happen before you write it” thing still escapes me.)

      • Sue says:

        I don’t know that we used him specifically, the name rings no bells. The instructor made up his own curriculum using a variety of sources. Our class used a three act structure in 4 acts I don’t have time right now to dig out the notes but it comprises about 40 index cards to use as guide.

        Another writer I know uses the screenwriting format for her novels.

        Yes, general advice is to know the ending

  2. kingmidget says:

    Well, now I’ll have to see the movie.

  3. KokkieH says:

    I want to see this so much but no cinema within an hour’s drive is showing it, so I’ll have to wait for the DVD. Maybe I can borrow a projector somewhere for the viewing…

    You make an excellent point about storytelling which also emphasises the oft-given advice that one should know the rules before one starts breaking them. This applies to the story as much as it applies to grammar and style.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      It’s a shame that Gravity isn’t playing near you, it really is good. And the advice I’m giving is mostly to myself, I have a bad habit of breaking rules just to be breaking them, which sometimes ends up annoying my audience.

  4. Chris Edgar says:

    Yes, I think I can relate — often, in writing songs, I find myself reflexively rebelling against the use of particular chords or lyrical conventions. However, it’s important for me to keep in mind that, in taking that approach, I’m still being formulaic in the sense that I’m simply doing the opposite of whatever I believe the accepted formula dictates, as opposed to striking out on my own because that comports with my instincts.

    • MishaBurnett says:

      Just after I heard that Lou Reed died I dug up “New York” and listened to it again. It’s aggressively spare, musically. Reed describes it in the liner notes as “Drum & 2 Guitars”, and that’s basically it, and he sticks to the basic rock 4/4 with a backbeat formula.

      How he works within that framework is just brilliant, though. The lyrics are a bit on the polemic side, granted, but the music just picks you up and runs off with you.

  5. Tuan Ho says:

    Nicely said, Misha! And Gravity is easily my favorite movie of the year! I hear from friends who were disappointed by the “story”, but that’s a pretty retarded thing to criticize because it’s not that type of movie.

    It’s just a masterwork from a master director. Alfonso Cuaron is easily one of the best directors of the 21st century. If anyone hasn’t seen Children of Men, go check that out as well, it’s another masterpiece! 🙂

  6. Megan says:

    I haven’t seen “Gravity” yet but I would like to. I know it will scare me because the idea of being lost in space like Sandra Bullock’s character is absolutely frightening. I mean, that is there is possibility of dying alone!

    Human against Nature is indeed a popular story, because it makes us realize how vulnerable we all are to the elements, no matter where we are. That feeling may go away in a few hours, so stories like these keep being made to remind ourselves of our limitations.

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