Floating in orbit with the Gravity script

Spoilers ahead.

Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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Why I chose this script

I picked up the Gravity script because there was something that bugged me about the film. It is an absolute game-changer of a film in the visual department. As much as I love going to the cinema, I usually don’t mind whether I see a given movie on a large or small screen. This was different. It needed to be seen big.

But for all the love that was poured into the film visually, I found the story a bit tepid. I couldn’t understand how they would go to such great lengths to make a film and then leave the heart of it untended to. So let’s get into the Gravity script and see what we can learn from it.

Finding a balance between beauty and function in prose

A screenplay is a functional document that is intended to be turned into something else. This makes it a different beast to many other forms of writing. Its primary goal is to serve as a blueprint for another form of artistic expression. It needs to be purpose-built and lean.

But, as I mentioned in my Brick script analysis, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to make your script an enjoyable thing to read. Adding a bit of flavor to your prose can do that, but add a little too much and it soon becomes purple. Finding the balance is a question of experience, your own personal style and the tone of the film.

The importance of tone in finding the right balance of prose is one of my learnings from the Gravity script, because the father and son duo of Alfonso and Jonás Cuarón nailed it right from page one.

BLACK-

OUTER SPACE, 600 KILOMETERS ABOVE-

PLANET EARTH.

Like all images of Earth seen from space, this image of our planet is mythical and majestic.

The globe seems almost tangible, slowly spinning, floating in the endless void of space. It is a blue planet, and bright white clouds twirl and stretch in capricious patterns across the deep blue of the oceans and the jigsaw of continents: green, yellow and brown.

If ever there was a time to be loquacious, it would be when looking down at Earth from orbit. But to get from being a technical showcase to a feature length film which will captivate your audience, you need to focus in on characters. It would be a mistake, though, to think that those smaller, intimate moments are less deserving of beautiful description than the big setpieces.

Desperately, she begins to unscrew the lock near her waist. She squirms under the suit and pushes off the upper half.

Then she throws off the lower half, squirming out of it as if shedding her old skin, desperate to free herself from the claustrophobia of the suit.

Wearing only underwear and a t-shirt, she floats in mid-air, relieved and exhausted. The hum of the Space Station surrounds her.

Then, slowly, she pulls her knees to her chest and enfolds them in her arms, floating in a fetal position.

For a moment, Ryan simply hangs in suspension, a fly in amber, surrendering to the poetry of the planets, rotating slowly in the cabin’s womb.

So find those moments of beauty whether they’re big or small, and make sure they aren’t lost on your reader.

On-the-nose dialogue in a blockbuster? No way!

Over the years, Hollywood has trained us to not be too critical of blockbusters. So maybe my expectations of the Gravity script were a little too high, but there were some things which genuinely irked me.

When dialogue contains too much exposition we think of it as being on-the-nose. It’s a tough thing to avoid when you’ve got a lot of story to get across and only an hour and half to do it in. Not even the pros are immune to it, and the Gravity script contains some real humdingers.

MISSION CONTROL

(on radio)

Copy that. How long do you think it’ll take you?

Matt begins a wide loop around the telescope.

RYAN

An hour.

MISSION CONTROL

(on radio)

Outstanding. We appreciate your patience, Doctor. Installing your system in the Hubble is the main purpose of this mission.

I’m glad mission control clarified that for Ryan. Having to go through months of training and then flying up to space not knowing what the purpose of the mission was must have been agony.

I mentioned above how even beautiful pieces of filmmaking like Gravity need to be grounded in characters in order to work. Sandra Bullock’s character, Dr. Ryan Stone, does go through some character development over the course of the story, but character development really needs to be shown through choices and actions instead of spelled out in dialogue:

EXPLORER CAP (CONT’D)

(on radio)

Houston, this is Explorer. Copy?

Still no answer.

EXPLORER CAP (CONT’D)

(on radio)

We lost Houston!

Matt stops next to Ryan.

MATT

Unstrap! You can’t tune out the world up here.

Further down in the script, George Clooney’s character offers another suggestion for Ryan’s development:

RYAN

I’m going to take the Soyuz and come get you.

MATT

No you’re not. . I have too much of a head start. That ship already sailed.

RYAN

No. I’m coming to get you.

MATT

Ryan, you’re going to have to learn to let go.

So how do we know that Ryan has completed her transformational arc? Well, helpfully she just comes out and tells us.

The Chinese Station is approaching, getting closer.

She disarms the emergency exit and holds on to the LATCH.

She pauses and turns to grab the fire extinguisher and holds it tightly against her chest with one arm. With the other arm-

She reaches for the Latch.

The Station is hovering right next to her and the cabin is going to pass it.

RYAN (CONT’D)

Okay, I’m done with just driving. Let’s get go home.

I’d like to give the Cuaróns the benefit of the doubt in some of these cases. The number of characters in the film is hugely restricted and there are very few opportunities for dialogue. I think it was inevitable that the concentration of exposition in the dialogue would increase as a result. But on-the-nose dialogue is still something to be mindful of at all times.

Making the most of your characters

Let’s pause for a moment on that paucity of characters in Gravity. The opening moments notwithstanding, there are only two. For that reason, it’s a real waste that they don’t develop Clooney’s character, Matt, to any significant extent.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say the Matt character becomes an alternative version of the mystic negro trope – the mystic spaceman. As the excerpts above show, he seems to always be around with some key advice for Ryan, like her own spiritual guide in orbit.

The Cuaróns also missed some opportunities to make the character so much more rounded. For example, when it becomes clear that Matt wasn’t going to make it, he could’ve dropped a lot of the bravado around his earlier character and revealed a lot about himself. Instead we get:

MATT (CONT’D)

So, now that we have some distance between us- you’re attracted to me, aren’t you?

RYAN

What?

MATT

Well, people say I have beautiful blue eyes.

RYAN

You… you have beautiful… you have beautiful blue eyes.

MATT

I have brown eyes… that hurts.

She looks at Matt’s figure receding.

MATT (CONT’D)

(on radio)

You wanna know the good news?

RYAN

What?

MATT

(on radio)

I’m going to break Anatoly’s record, and I think mine’s going to stand for a long, long time.

Then there are the little things. Like how Matt is the consummate astronaut throughout, but when he and Ryan are travelling towards the ISS, he tries to distract her with conversation and apparently ignores the fact that she’s low on oxygen.

RYAN

02 down to two percent.

MATT

We’re getting there.

MATT (CONT’D)

Beautiful, don’t you think?

RYAN

What?

MATT

The sunrise. That’s what I’m going to miss the most.

But Ryan is not into the view right now. She’s stricken with fear. Her jaw is clenched and her eyes are almost closed.

Matt looks at the dark emptiness that engulfs him and smiles.

MATT (CONT’D)

So, where’s home, Dr. Stone?

Ryan keeps her eyes closed, doesn’t answer. Matt, trying to distract her-

MATT (CONT’D)

Ryan. Where’s home?

Gravity is an extreme example, but the number of characters you’re going to have in your script will always be a function of the story you’re telling. Always keep an eye open for opportunities to peek behind their masks.

A series of unfortunate events

The last lesson I want to take away from the Gravity script is how to stack events in your story to keep the momentum going.

Robert McKee talks in his book Story, which is available on Amazon, about story sitting in the disconnect between expectation and reality. There’s no story, he says, in someone flicking a light switch and a light coming on. Reality mirrors the person’s expectation. The story starts when the light doesn’t come on and the expectation is thwarted.

While you want bad things to happen to your characters so that they can struggle to overcome them, it’s not enough to just create a series of unfortunate events if you want to carry momentum forward.

Let’s compare two sequences.

  1. Your protagonist gets in an argument with a friend over a misunderstanding. In the next scene your protagonist drives away and shakes it off. The third scene shows your protagonist meeting another friend and having another argument.
  2. Your protagonist gets in an argument with a friend over a misunderstanding. In the next scene, the friend calls a mutual friend and says your protagonist is acting really weird, they’ve just had a huge fight. The third scene shows your protagonist meeting the mutual friend and it also ends in a fight.

In the second sequence you can see how the momentum is carried forward and the outcomes can be related. The mutual friend was probably more likely to get into a fight knowing that one had already happened earlier. In the first sequence you’re dealing with compound coincidences. If you build up enough of them, your audience either starts disliking your protagonist, or their friends.

On an episode of Scriptnotes, Aline Brosh McKenna describes it like this:

You want all your scenes to have a “Because” between them and not an “And Then” between them.

I felt, with Gravity, that there was too much “and then” between the setpieces and not enough “because”.

Yes, Ryan had to go on and try the next solution to her problem because the last one didn’t work, but there was no causal relationship between one thing not working and the next. It felt like they just took this basic formula of “Try X. X doesn’t work. Try Y.” and repeated it until they had enough material to fill a feature length film.

Gravity is not alone in having made that slip-up, not at all. But going back to the reason I chose this script, it was obvious from the very first moment of the film how much love was poured into the visual aspects of it. I guess I was just hoping, as a writer, that the story was going to change the game as much as the visual did.

In summation

The Gravity script taught me that different types of films call for a different balance between prose and brevity, that even the biggest blockbusters can suffer from on-the-nose dialogue, that you should never miss an opportunity to add depth to characters and that you should always connect your scenes with “because” instead of “and then”.

Tell me your thoughts about this post. Be kind & play nice.
  1. Marjeta Markovic says:

    That was very insightful. When I saw the movie, I had trouble trying to establish what it was that didn’t quite work, because it seemed that everybody at the time was singing it praises.

    For me, George Clooney’s character did indeed seem like a storytelling tool, more than a character himself. I was of course a bit more forgiving because I like George Clooney, but I do admit that more often than not, he is really just playing himself (the cocky, but lovable Danny Ocean). This role was no different in that respect, but more than that, he was a storytelling tool and that already ruined my immersion a little.

    Indeed, all the faults that you described in your post are guilty of reminding me that I am watching a movie and I really honestly hate that.

    That being said, Gravity was a visually stunning movie and I definitely don’t regret seeing it in IMAX when it came out. I just wish that Hollywood would have more faith in their viewers to be able to understand what is happening in the scene without being explicitly told. Or even that their actors would be able to portray it somehow.. I think the technique is called ‘acting’.

    Reply

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