Bringing Gravity to Gravity
A missing piece of narrative structure, key to establishing a complete story, left this film with little left to offer except one helluva' ride.
Audiences loved Gravity. Critics praised the film. And while the filmmakers' peers loved Gravity--as evidenced by the 7 Academy Awards it won including Best Director and Best Cinematography--there was one award they kept from it.
Best Original Screenplay.1
To date the film has grossed over $700 million dollars, making it one of the top ten films of 2013. Poll audience reaction and they'll cite the action, the music and the special effects of Gravity. "Masterfully directed" and "some kind of miracle" only hint at the kind of critical acclaim Gravity received.2
However rarely will they laud the story, and even if they do they'll say it was run-of-the-mill Hollywood. Visually, Gravity is stunning. But there is something missing from the actual story, something that explains why it didn't win an award for writing.
The Missing Piece
Gravity presents a strong and clear Main Character Throughline. We experience the film through the eyes of Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock), a medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. More importanty, we feel what it is like to be a mother struggling to overcome the loss of her daughter. The audience experiences these issues through her eyes.
The film also places an Influence Character Throughline to help challenge Dr. Stone and these issues. With his calm demeanor and steely blue eyes, Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) helps propel Stone through her growth. The Relationship Throughline that develops between the two of them, that of mentor and student, rounds out the film by providing the emotional argument for Stone's transformation.
But what of the fourth and final throughline? Where is the Objective Story Throughine? We never depart from Stone's point-of-view. We have no idea what is going on down on Earth. Why did the Russians launch their missile? What geopolitical shifts come as a result of this act of agression? How is everyone affected by these events?
For those answering So what?, you're correct. The movie didn't need it.
But without that perspective of greater objectivity, the events on-screen simply become a roller-coaster ride. Without that juxtaposition of objective vs. subjective, what happens just happens. The events onscreen mean nothing more than what we see. We may attach our own personal meaning to it, but the Author misses out on saying something more.
An audience needs that dissonance between objective and subjective in order to gain some greater appreciation of the film's events.
Aningaaq, the short companion film to Gravity offers a wonderful opportunity to experience this important aspect of narrative. Writen and directed by Alfonso Cuaron's son Jonas, Aningaaq depicts the other side of the conversation Dr. Stone was having while marooned in the space capsule. Stationed on a remote fjord in Greenland, an Inuit fisherman--Aningaaq--picks up her distress call. Fighting the language barrier, the two speak of lonliness and loss and an approach to dealing with grief.
Think back to your experience with Gravity in the theaters. Remember what it was like to be flung around in zero gravity and the isloation you felt at 350 miles above the Earth. Now take a look at it from another point-of-view:
Problems with the story of Gravity?
This missing Objective Story Throughline explains it all.
We know what it feels like to experience pain and how we personally deal with loss, but rarely do we take a look at how others deal with the same kind of loss within the same frame of mind. By seeing Aningaaq deal with his personal grief objectively while maintaining the subjective experience we have of Dr. Stone and her daughter, we experience a cognitive dissonance unavailable to us in real life.
We acquire meaning.
The Four Throughlines
We cannot simultaneously be inside ourselves and out. The Cherokee proverb "Don't judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes" tells of this reality. We can't be objective about ourselves. Stories on the other hand can. Stories give us an experience we can't acheive in our own lives, they give us the context for meaning.
By allowing an Audience member to witness the effects a problem has on everyone (objective) while simultaneously providing an experience of what its like to have that problem personally (subjective), a story generates a greater understanding.
The Four Throughlines of a complete story cover the four contexts we can assume. The Main Character Throughline depicts what it's lke when I have a problem. The Influence or Challenge Character Throughline show us what it's like when You have a problem. The Relationship Throughline between these two characters allows us to feel what it's like when We have a problem. And finally, the Objective Story Throughline let's us step back and see what it's like when They have a problem.
In real life we can only assume three of these contexts at once. If we take the I position, then we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem. But we can never step outside of ourselves and see what it's like when They have a problem, because we are included in that perspective.
If we instead assume the They perspective, we can see how You have a problem and how We have a problem but we can never truly know what it personally feels like to have that problem. We can't take the I perspective.
For those experiencing their own cognitive dissonance in regards to why We doesn't include I, precisely. The We context does not include I the same way They does not include You. The tendency to blend the first two erupts from our own self-awareness and coincindentally ruins many stories. When it comes to generating meaning, context is everything.3
Gravity failed to give us that greater context and thus diminished what it meant to most.
Writing a Complete Story
The strength of this outer-space thriller betrays it’s ultimate weakness. By placing the audience almost entirely within Dr. Stone’s (Sandra Bullock’s) first person point-of-view for most of the film, Gravity fails to provide the much needed third-person perspective on the day’s events. Without an objective view to juxtapose against the subjective, the story loses all hope of providing any greater meaning and instead becomes nothing more than an amusement park ride.
The short film Aningaaq provides a taste of what that objective view would be. By granting us a dispassionate view of how someone else deals with grief and loss, we gain a greater understanding of how to let go of grief ourselves.
Make no mistake: inserting this short into the film would not have improved things. Gravity was designed to be experienced entirely from within. Adding this in would have diminished the experience. The point to be made here is the difference between the objective and subjective views and how important that difference is for authors wanting to write complete, deeply meaningful stories. Gravity was not a complete story. Chinatown, Casablanca, Her, and Hamlet were.
The question is, what kind of story do you want to tell?
- Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for his film her.↩
- Rotten Tomatoes consensus stated it was "masterfully directed" while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone said the film was "more than a movie. It's some kind of miracle"↩
- For a story to feel complete it needs to have 4 different throughlines, each representing a different perspective on the story’s problems. (The Four Throughlines) ↩↩