Meet the Reader: The Promise of ‘Gravity’

by Ray Morton

For better and for worse (and there’s a lot of both), we are living in the era of the tentpole: giant, high-concept movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars, usually with a sci-fi, supernatural, or superheroic theme and filled with non-stop spectacle, action, and visual effects. This is the type of movie that was kicked off by the original Star Wars in 1977 and has gradually come to dominate the American film industry to the point where it is the only type of film that most major studios are interested in making any more.

GRAVITYAs a rule I enjoy this type of movie, but I think even the most rabid fan would have to agree that the genre is in trouble. For a number of reasons – too much repetition of the same basic narrative and filmmaking models, an over-mining and therefore exhaustion of the same basic story and production elements, and (frankly) substandard execution in the hands of people less adept at the genre than those who pioneered it – the overall quality of tentpole films has been declining quite a bit in recent years. I saw most of the big movies that were released this summer and I found watching them to be a very dispiriting experience, especially from a screenwriting perspective.

  • The summer kicked off with Iron Man 3, a movie that certainly contained a number of enjoyable moments, but that also suffered from a strange insistence on keeping its hero from actually becoming the titular hero (by having other people wear the Iron Man suit, by having the empty suit operate by remote control, by having Tony Stark wear pieces of the suit but not the whole outfit, and so on). The narrative also lacked a clear theme – it begins as the tale of a man struggling with PTSD and ends with Tony Stark coming to terms both with being Iron Man and with leaving Iron Man behind, issues we didn’t know he was wrestling with until they popped up in the film’s final moments.
  • Next up was Star Trek Into Darkness, a maddeningly random and unfocused collection of ideas, scenes, and concepts that never gelled into anything resembling a coherent whole and whose screenwriters not only brazenly recycled the work of other screenwriters from thirty years back, but actually seemed to want to be applauded for doing so.
  • Then came Man of Steel, a grim, joyless exercise whose sole purpose for existing seemed to be to trash everything that was entertaining and special about the Superman character (instead of being fun, the film equates having superpowers with being emotionally disturbed; it has Earth’s Greatest Guardian needlessly let his own stepfather die and inexplicably fail to save thousands of people from being slaughtered by the bad guys; it redesigned Kal-el’s iconic costume beyond recognition and good taste; and had Superman – a good and noble character who has always held himself to a higher standard — commit murder as a cheap plot device) in some misguided and cynical attempt to make the character “dark” (because that’s apparently very important these days), “edgy,” and “cool.”
  • But for me, the absolute nadir of the summer was Pacific Rim. I don’t know if giant robots fighting giant monsters was the greatest idea for a movie, but it was certainly no worse a premise than those of the summer’s other tentpoles. However the development and execution of the piece was so lackluster and the script such a massively uninspired assemblage of every trope and cliché of the genre (and of modern screenwriting) — a simple premise needlessly complicated to the point of being incomprehensible (each giant robot requires two pilots who are psychically linked so they can operate each side of the machine via virtual reality in order to battle giant monsters who are coming through a dimensional rift as the advance force of an alien invasion. Huh? What?); a needlessly long prologue used to convey a needlessly convoluted backstory (detailing a history of the robot/kaiju war that probably should have been the plot of the movie); a narrative consisting almost exclusively of long, endless action sequences; a hero with a tragic past (in this case, a brother killed by monsters); a by-the-numbers opposites-attract romance; too many cardboard supporting characters with too many pointless subplots; a seemingly unending series of flashbacks and dream sequences; a pound and a half of terrible, bumper sticker dialogue (“Today we are canceling the apocalypse” and so on); an uneven tone (broad, stupid comedy interspersed with an almost laughable solemnity); and an unforgivably high page count – all put together with so little energy or enthusiasm that film was literally a chore to watch.

Pacific Rim was such an excruciating climax to such a dreary season that I just couldn’t bring myself to see the season’s final tentpole: The Lone Ranger — I felt like I had already seen the same movie four times and I just couldn’t put myself through it for another three more hours. Judging from the film’s calamitous box office reception, apparently I wasn’t alone. I ended the summer feeling pretty hopeless about the future of the tentpole (and, by extension, the entire future of movies).

But then I saw Gravity, the new outer space adventure written by its director Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron and starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney and I started to feel hopeful again.

There were many things that I liked about the film, but for the purposes of our discussion, what impressed me most was that it contained the same elements as the other tentpole films mentioned earlier in this piece — it was science fiction (albeit not as far away from present day reality as most films in the genre), it consisted of non-stop spectacle, action, and special effects, and the screenplay contained many of the same elements that the scripts of the other films did (a protagonist with a tragic backstory, a plot consisting primarily of action sequences, a few choice bits of bumper sticker dialogue, etc.) and yet it, unlike the other films, worked like gangbusters.

So why did Gravity work while the other tentpoles failed?

I think it ultimately came down to four basic things (CAUTION: some spoilers ahead).

  • It’s smart: In their desire to appeal to all audiences everywhere, tentpoles often tend to dumb themselves down with a lot of lowest common denominator content and storytelling, but Gravity doesn’t do that. Its makers make consistently intelligent choices about plot and characterization. The narrative is very logically worked out within the context of the established premise and the writers stick to that logic throughout, never falling back on convenience or coincidence or Deus ex machinas to make the story work. The plot developments are all believable and realistic within the world of the story. The characters are presented as competent, intelligent professionals who use their skills and talents in intelligent and clever ways to get themselves through a terrible ordeal, with no hip, cool rebels or loners who don’t play by the rules to be seen anywhere.
  • It’s focused: Gravity has a very clear theme that is woven into the story from beginning to end, with no additional premises tossed in at the last minute as in Iron Man 3 did. Likewise, it has a very clear narrative that is presented and developed consistently from the first scene until the last – the plot never becomes cluttered, distracted, or confused with extraneous backstories, flashbacks, non-linear storytelling gimmicks, or subplots. This is marvelously efficient and, therefore, effective storytelling.
  • It avoids excess: overly eager to please, most tentpoles throw too much into the mix: too many characters, too many plotlines, too many set-pieces, too much exposition, too many climaxes, and too many minutes – the movies just go on and on and on until the audience has been bludgeoned into submission. Gravity does the exact opposite: The narrative has been stripped down to essentials. There’s not a wasted scene or minute and all of the action advances the plot. The script never bothers with unnecessary love interests, sidekicks, or wingmen. There are no purposeless stunt or effects scenes, comic relief, or “getting ready for the battle” montage sequences. No aliens are thrown in just to spice things up. And the movie is (blessedly) only 90 minutes long – it tells the story and then gets out. There’s no fat anywhere and, as a result, the film grabs you at the outset and doesn’t let you go until the credits role.
  • It believes in itself: the makers of too many tentpole movies seem embarrassed by the material they are working on and so feel the need to goose it either by sending it up or by trying to make it “edgy” or “cool” even when such approaches aren’t appropriate for the material. For me, this was the thing that most spoiled Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel – the filmmakers clearly didn’t have much interest or belief in Star Trek or Superman and so attempted to “reimagine” or “reinvent” both properties. In the case of Star Trek Into Darkness, the results were noisy, busy, and buffoonish. In the case of Man of Steel, the results were grim, joyless, and without hope or inspiration. The makers of Gravity do not make this mistake. They clearly love their concept and trust. They tell their story directly and enthusiastically – milking it for all that its worth and never trying to twist it into something it’s not. I think this is a major reason for its success – the filmmakers’ passion for their story was transmitted to the audience, which came to love it as well – and a lesson I wish the makers of many other tentpoles would learn.

So why talk about all of this in a screenwriting column? Because – these are the kind of movies that the industry is going to making for the foreseeable future and therefore these are the kind of movies we’re all going to be writing and I think we’d all rather they turn out well rather than poorly. And we have proof that when these precepts are adhered to, the results can be very good indeed – there have been a lot of lousy tentpoles made in recent years,  but in addition to Gravity, we’ve also had films such The Avengers and Skyfall, wonderful tentpoles that have worked both creatively and commercially. And even if you’re not crafting tentpoles, writing scripts that that are smart, focused, tight, and believed is an admirable goal no matter what the genre.

Shameless Plug: Check out my new book — A Quick Guide to Screenwriting. It’s a fast, easy-to-read primer on the nuts and bolts of the craft that will provide you with a simple, understandable introduction to the core concepts of dramatic writing and their application to the screenwriting process; a summary of the important principles of writing for the screen, and some handy advice about the art, the craft, and the business of creating scripts for the movies. The book is published by Limelight Editions and is available at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com and in bookstores.

Copyright © 2013 by Ray Morton
All Rights Reserved
No portion of this article may be copied, reprinted, or reposted without the permission of the author.
However, feel free to link to this piece to your heart’s content

Related Articles:

Tools to Help:

 

7 thoughts on “Meet the Reader: The Promise of ‘Gravity’

  1. donag

    I haven’t seen any of the movies mentioned here …yet! But, I do emphatically agree with Morton in his analysis of current movie “madness.” I am fed to the belt with overlong and complicated plots, FX tricks and befuddled characterization. Borrrrrring! Drama is a zombie thing of the Hollywood golden days now long past! The only people going to the movie theaters today are frustrated 12 year olds and those who never evolved from adolescence. TV is more mature, but even there, brutality and sizzling sex is more fantasy than true life. Of course, “soap” opera has always been a stable for hundreds of years. And, this mania for YA is emotional regret that shows that the baby boomers never grew beyond their distrust for anyone over 30. High school angst is not the answer to overcome terrorism and religious intolerance. There are “real” problems to face today and Hollywood is ignoring them. The truth is: There are no real superheroes. There are no space aliens to threaten us. The real monsters are “Us:” Ordinary folk who are so scared of our own shadows that we fade into them. Just sayin’

  2. Meredyth

    Ray, while I enjoyed Gravity I would not class it as a SF movie. The space travel could have been tomorrow, it was not too far from a near imagined future, but that is not the reason it did not ring a SF bell for me. Space was incidental to the film – at the end you could read it as having all been a dream, as she climbed from the primordial swamp. The dialogue was clever and funny, I like a resourceful female lead, and there were moments of true humanity, but it was not SF.

    Gravity could have been set on an oil rig or the antarctic and the same story could have been used, albeit without the glorious scenery, and the George Clooney character would not have had such a stylish exit – disappearing into the sunrise.

    Star Trek into Darkness I could have missed. Brutality seems tho have been hauled into the future, and a street brawl in the future is no better than the equivalent today. Too much relied on previous knowledge of the series.

    Pacific Rim did have an interesting SF premise. It was heavy, derivative and deeply emotional which reduced its appeal somewhat and the dialogue made all the characters wooden and distant. It did have an excellent driving conflict and I liked the escalation. I did not find the dual pilots a difficult concept to take on.

    I do see excellent qualities in Gravity, but it still disappointed me.

    Regards

  3. Ray MortonRay Morton Post author

    @Alfred: Thanks for your kind words. I love your interpretation of the movie — really beautiful.

    @Erica: Thanks for your thoughts on Iron Man 3. I didn’t see what you did in it, but I like your take. Maybe it’s time to watch it again. I found more to Gravity than you did — admittedly the character arc was a bit thin, but I did feel there was definitely one there — a person who has gone numb because of a death faces death herself and is jolted back to life. Simple, yes, but for me very effective. I’m not saying Gravity is the greatest movie ever, but I did think it was a very nifty piece of construction and I was impressed by the fact that it used all of the same elements as the other tentpoles, but to very different (and to me successful) effect. A great example of the alchemy of the movies.

    @Neal: You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but I liked it a lot. Sorry.

  4. Erica S

    While I agree with you Ray, (and full disclosure I took a miss on many of the season’s blockbusters because I could see those weaknesses you pointed out even during the trailers), I have to say that I enjoyed IRON MAN III and was not so keen on GRAVITY as you were.

    Let me caveat this by saying that I watched IMIII on a plane, from the vantage point of a small VDT screen with glare from open window shades and bad headphones, but I did see GRAVITY in full 3-D IMAX.

    To wit: 1) IMIII took the Tony Stark character down a couple of pegs to make him more accessible as an ordinary human and, I think, successfully pitted him against greater forces for doing so. We needed to see him as an ordinary man using all his native capacities without the benefit of technology against greater odds than the previous two films allowed had him and I think they did a fine job of it. I’m willing to forgive the holes in the story for a satisfying experience. I think they delivered on this one.

    2) GRAVITY was beautifully shot, but seriously there is very little story in this tale. I love the shot of her embryonic rebirth after a heroic effort: it’s gorgeous (and a straight homage Kubrick). But really what changes with her character or with the whole value proposition? Yeah, she survives and no-one else does, but is that enough? She comes to terms with her loss (clever hallucination), but where does it get us? I enjoyed the economy of character portrayals (and again the gorgeous cinematography) but at the end of the line, there was no end of the line.

    Thank you for keeping story alive and kicking by pointing out the flaws of these films. I just recently saw THE COUNSELOR and – although a different genre – was shocked that such a badly written screenplay could be produced and acted by A-List stars. Being a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist does not make you a screenwriter: they are completely different mediums. Good performances, but no story whatsoever.

    Cheers, ejs.

  5. NealR

    WTF?! You guys are STILL trying to promote “Gravity” as an example of good writing?! Well, rather than repeat myself please see the comments of myself and others at the below links.

    And please, guys, consider promoting a movie that was made from a spec screenplay, not a pre-ordained one written by a famous director and his son. That would have far more relevance.

    By the way, the first few paragraphs of this article, talking about how bad the other tentpole movies were, was actually quite good. But it boggles the mind how the author could possible write something like:

    “its makers make consistently intelligent choices about plot and characterization. The narrative is very logically worked out within the context of the established premise and the writers stick to that logic throughout, never falling back on convenience or coincidence or Deus ex machinas to make the story work”

    when in reality the screenplay does exactly the opposite.

    http://www.scriptmag.com/features/specs-and-the-city-5-screenwriting-lessons-from-gravity#comment-231926

    http://www.scriptmag.com/features/specs-and-the-city-5-screenwriting-lessons-from-gravity#comment-231857

    http://www.scriptmag.com/features/specs-and-the-city-5-screenwriting-lessons-from-gravity#comment-231917

    In conclusion, if nothing else I sure hope that Jeff Richard’s comment (above these three) stating that “he [the author] isn’t saying it’s Best Screenplay or Best Picture material” means that we won’t at the end of the year be subjected to another Script article claiming that it is!

  6. Alfred S. Burnham

    I cannot agree more with Ray Morton in his appraisal of the film Gravity. As soon as the primary characters are established I found that the whole movie experience was exceptional. As Mr. Morton observes, Gravity is smart, focused, avoids excess, and it believes in itself. It has been the highlight of my recent outings to the movie theatre. I have been telling my friends and family to catch this film because it is so good! I also have my own interpretation which analyzes the film from another point of view. For me it is a sort of spiritual parable about human beings facing fear and imminent death, yet striving for survival without forgetting their humanity. It captures the mystery of knowing that we live each moment in relationships and that we are never alone. Technology may be a cool tool, but humanity is the gift!

COMMENT