Gravity

sandra-bullock-s-gravity-set-to-kick-off-venice-film-festivalGravity is, without a doubt, the only script I can actually say is BOTH excellent and completely terrible at the same time. Usually that would be some sort of hyperbole or [even worse] unmeant metaphor. This time, it is neither.

Gravity is, literally, excellent and terrible at the same time.

Of course that means you should see it, and of course that means you should read it, because you cannot fail to learn something from it. [I personally learned that if you tell the right kind of story, you can make a protagonist out of imitation cardboard (not even REAL cardboard for God’s sake) and you can still churn out a script that is very hard to put down.]

And I could not put this script down. I read it from beginning to end in one gulp even though I had no intention of doing that when I started. I had wanted to read the first few pages to get the flavor and then enjoy a day off from working AND blogging. 99 pages and an hour and eighteen minutes later, I was shaking my head at the amazing contradiction I had just completed.

Gravity did something to me which my intuition tells me should be impossible. It made me care about THE STORY way more than I cared about THE CHARACTER in the story. For instance, I’ve just kicked back in my chair and endured several seconds of blinking cursor trying to remember the protagonist’s name. I can’t remember it. I’m going to have to look it up to complete the review. I hope that doesn’t seem artificially convenient because it is just true.

Why can’t I remember the main character’s name? Because I didn’t care about the main character at all. All I cared about, as I was reading Gravity, was the story. Could the writers, I wondered, believably maintain the unyielding catastrophe they created in the first few pages all the way to fade out?

Let’s see how they did.

1. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) Fortunately [for the script], we begin with exposition. I can actually give the dialogue in Gravity credit for not being laden with exposition. [We shall soon see, the dialogue in Gravity isn’t laden with anything.] There was a time or two where Ryan (1) says something out loud just so we’ll know what the new problem is, but other than that there is no issue with exposition. (2)

That doesn’t mean you can learn anything about how to write expositionless scripts just by reading Gravity, so take the score I’m about to give with the grain of salt it deserves.

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Subtext? Nope. There isn’t one ounce of it in the entire script.

Or, perhaps there is exactly one ounce. The fact that Matt is a womanizer and Ryan is a nerd does come up over and over. Other than that omnipresent ounce, nothing. Someone might argue that this was intentional [based on a comment I will make about the protagonist later on] but I don’t think you ever give credit to bad writing—even if it is intentionally bad writing.

2 out of 10 points.

Part C) Other than the womanizing and the nerdiness, there is also very little attempt made at giving Matt or Ryan a unique voice. These characters are imitation cardboard AT BEST. Honestly, I found both characters to be highly annoying. If not for the story…

3 out of 10 points.

2. Do the first 10 pages make me want to read to Fade Out? (20 points)

Part of me wants to inflate the score on this question because of how the script picked up AND THEN NEVER STOPPED after the first 10 pages. That would be a mistake because the first 10 is only slightly better than okay.

The writers introduce us to Matt, Ryan, and Shariff, as they orbit the earth in order to repair the Hubble space telescope.

The first few pages of description are good; they set the stage nicely. Perhaps there are more unfilmables than would ordinarily be tidy in a spec from you or me, but the words do set the mood.

Then we meet the characters, and the characters are just terrible. They do not interest me at all, and I find myself reading to get to the mishap. Since the mishap does not arrive by page 10,

10 out of 20 points.

3. Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist and (c) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story. (each part worth 10 points)

Part A) This script is structured exquisitely. It is an exercise in how to structure a script in order to get a sale. I will tell you right now that you could COPY the structure of this script and make a sale with a story about something as lame as misfiring Buicks in Toledo.

READ THIS SCRIPT FOR ITS STRUCTURE.

It is immaculate. I will not break it down because I think it should be done first hand reader to author. [Don’t think I’m evading work here either. I really believe you should experience the precision of this structure in the first person.]

10 out of 10 points.

Part B) Well, Ryan isn’t the protagonist because Ryan isn’t a person, she’s cardboard.

You are the protagonist of [the script for] Gravity.

It becomes your story in a way that its translation to the screen may not be able to replicate.

The protagonist of Gravity is that part of every person that makes ocean liners and declares them “unsinkable”. As long as there are humans, there will be humans in environments that don’t support humans. This is a part of what makes us unique as a species. The protagonist of Gravity is humanity’s fundamental embrace of hubris. We humans like nothing more than challenging our mortal limits.

If I truly believed the authors did this on purpose (3) I would give them 20 out of 10 points on this question. As it is, I would say that even unmeant metaphors can sometimes be perfect.

10 out of 10 points.

Part C) So then, what is the theme? The ending tells us that the writers intend something like:

You can take the person out of this world, but you can’t take the world out of this person.

Or, more simply,

Life is beautiful.

But I think this script is ONLY trying to tell us:

Victory comes to those who persist.

I said that was trite two weeks ago when I listed it as a possible theme for World War Z. It is still trite today (but the meant/unmeant ingenuity concerning “the protagonist” shores up the score):

7 out of 10 points.


4. Is there (a) anything unique in the story being told or (b) in the writing itself? (each part worth 5 points)

Part A) What is unique about this story is its structure. The author’s designed a story that fits together seamlessly. It is amazing how the script gets by with [according to my accounting] six locations, AND yet it could not exist with more than those locations. Even more impressively, each location in the script is THE ONLY location that made sense. Change one or eliminate one, and the structure would be drastically weakened.

5 out of 5 points.

Part B) The writing is good in that the structure and the description are first rate and worth studying. The writing is bad in that the dialogue and characterization are unbearably awful.

3 out of 5 points.

5. Are we inspired, for however brief a time, to live in harmony with the theme of the script. (10 points)

This script just wants to entertain. It wants to be sold. It is what it is and it is not more than that. I enjoyed reading this script, once. I will enjoy watching this movie, once. There is nothing in the script to reward a repeat reading.

Perhaps the direction and cinematography in the film will reward repeat viewing. I don’t yet know.

5 out of 10 points.

Total Score: 55

That is exactly the score I would expect from a script that is equal parts excellent and terrible. The score is fair in that respect.

I will say, however, that the score does not accurately reflect my enjoyment of the script. The first 10 pages of the script were trifling. After that the script grabbed me and didn’t let go until fade out.

In THAT RESPECT, the script was more like a 75-80. But my rubric is what it is.

Maybe I am taking this review as an opportunity to warn you potential scribes not to write cardboard characters?

No matter how the script ranks quantitatively, I would recommend reading it—for its wonderful structure.

I’ll also note that my copy of this pdf is dated 2007. Perhaps the intervening six years were kind to Ryan’s character.

FOOTNOTES:

1. I really did have to look her name up.

2. I feel a little like I’m finding a way to give the script a free 10 points here because… the dialogue in the script, overall, is terrible. The fact that it doesn’t have any exposition is not a success of the craftsmanship; it just means there is so little dialogue it is hard for there to be much of anything.

3. I do not believe it now any less than I did not believe it right before I gave this script 2 out of 10 points for its subtext. I’ll entertain the idea that this might have been intentional, but you’ll never find me assembling lines from the script to try and prove it in a post.

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5 responses to “Gravity

  1. I’ll be away Monday-Thursday this week with only limited time each day to check in on the site. I’ll have a new review up this weekend.

  2. I remember liking this script a lot when I read it — in the same way that I liked AVATAR a lot when I read it. I also loved both of the movies that resulted from those scripts. I think the arguments above are valid, but in both cases it didn’t bother me in the slightest, particularly in the actual movie experiences, which were exhilarating.

    I did come up with a half-assed theory in an argument with someone about this once as it applied to Avatar but I think it holds true for Gravity also. It was essentially this:

    Movies have mass…a certain amount of weight. This is weight that the audience must carry as they are watching it. And there is no perfect mass for a movie…the audience can only carry a certain amount of it, but too little mass and the movie becomes wispy and unfufilling. When it comes to movies, this is part magical/part alchemical — it is not an exact science.

    Everything you put into a film adds mass in some quantity. Character. Plot. Comedy. World-building, etc, etc. All of these elements require a certain amount of processing power from the audience to, er, compute.

    The thing about science-fiction films is that they come pre-loaded with an enormous amount of mass. The world is literally new. There is a lot for the audience member to process coming in at zero — and then we add all the elements that make a good movie on top of that, and it can perhaps overwhelm. I am thinking of something like EDGE OF TOMORROW, which is glorious and rich and complicated — but didn’t seem to find its audience in theatres.

    I dunno. It’s a work-in-progress theory.

  3. See now this is the kind of mouse-play I was talking about.

    I remember reading Gravity last year and thinking that it was thin but that was part of what made the film successful. And of course in the cases of both Avatar and Gravity the fantastic visuals are integral to the success of the project and that is difficult to render on the page.

    I think it is no coincidence both scripts were written by the directors, and that the directors were already successful when they wrote them.

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