Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits


I saw Gravity this weekend, and like many viewers and critics, I loved it. And as a sign of that enjoyment, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it. As I always do when I encounter a piece of culture that I love, I’ve been reading about it, looking for critics who can explore some of the ideas I’ve been obsessing about. The review that best captures my feeling about it is Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece, highlighting the juxtaposition of grandiose visual splendor and simple narrative intimacy. Even more thought provoking is Christopher Dole’s impressive analysis of Gravity‘s narrative structure, thematic focus, use of stars, and visual style—if you’re going to read one piece on the film, that’s the one I’d recommend.

But none of the criticism I’ve read direclty tackled the topic I was most interested in: the film’s use of narrative scope and limits to deliver a new take on its genre and augment its emotional impact. Probably the closest I found was Film Crit Hulk’s take on the film’s simplicity, but that doesn’t draw the connections I want to explore. So I’ll take a moment to violate this blog’s title and offer a little bit of film criticism—spoilers after the fold.

What is Gravity‘s genre? Science fiction seems likely due to its setting in outer space, but it lacks many of the elements that typify the genre: it takes place in the present rather than future, its vision of space travel is mostly based in fact rather than fantasy, and nothing that happens in the film requires the broad speculative leaps typical of sci-fi. In this way it is more similar to a film like Apollo 13 in portraying actual astronautical practices—but, of course, Apollo 13 is a historical film based on true events, while Gravity is purely fictional in terms of character and story.

In terms of its plot and structure, it mostly resembles the survival film, portraying how one or more protagonists deal with highly stressful situations like being lost at sea (Life of Pi or Cast Away) or stranded after an air crash (Alive or Flight of the Phoenix). Yet such films typically are instigated by a local calamity, like a shipwreck or plane crash, where we are watching the experiences of those most specifically affected by the events. But Gravity‘s instigating calamity is a much more global event fitting of a disaster film: Russia shoots down its own spy satellite to cover up some past activity, which accidentally destroys at least one major space vessel and two space stations, while also knocking out communication satellites to create a major media disruption on Earth. Of course, that aspect of the story is mostly recounted to viewers via background dialogue, witnessing debris and seeing some of the explosions, and thus few viewers would include that macrostory as part of a plot synopsis, because the story as it is told is highly limited to what Dr. Ryan Stone knows, experiences, and (often explicitly) sees.

Imagine changing either the film’s story or its telling, and we can see how the choices it makes are unconventional. The instigating event could be far more localized and mundane, where the space shuttle is destroyed to strand Stone and Kowalski in a manner more typical of survival films, and thus the primary narrative conflict is the limits of their technology against the physical properties of space. Or Gravity‘s same events could be told as a disaster film, where we see the impact of the accident on the larger swath of victims, follow the heroic efforts of NASA to help save the stranded astronauts (a possibility winked at by casting Ed Harris as the voice of “Houston”), and otherwise feature the larger ensembles of disaster films emphasizing collaboration, competition, and bridging divides—imagine this same story told like Armageddon or Deep Impact.

I offer these hypotheticals not to suggest that Gravity would have been better had it told a different story or used a different mode of storytelling—it wouldn’t. Rather, I think what works so well about the film is that it maps the limited narrative structure and perspective of the survival film onto the broader high-stakes situation of a disaster movie. We know that there are bigger issues at play than just whether Dr. Stone survives, but that’s all the film allows us to know, never presenting any facets of the disaster beyond her experiences. Disaster movies typically ask us to experience macroevents through the embodied experiences of a few characters, but always remind us of the broader contexts and how many other victims there might be. Survival films are predicated on the idea that these survivors’ experiences are all that matters, or at least are the only real story of interest—but Gravity made me wonder how this disaster played out for the other astronauts, back in Houston, or among average Earthbound citizens suddenly cut off from their invisible dependence on outer space. These unanswered questions are not narrative weaknesses, but designed gaps that reenforce the film’s emotional intensity and tight character alignment, as sharing Stone’s lack of knowledge and limited perspective forces us to experience the limits of what she knows and the anxiety those gaps produce.

The only other mainstream example of a disaster movie told with the limited scope of a survival film that I can think of is Signs, which tells the story of an alien invasion from the narrow perspective of one family’s experience. Despite its breathtakingly stupid ending, Signs works well as a reorientation of a conventional genre story’s scope, creating fear, isolation and anxiety from the limits of knowledge imposed by its structure. Gravity takes these limits even further, as Stone cannot access the mediated exposition on the television news as in Signs, so her experiences are all the evidence we have of the larger story, especially once she loses the guidance of her mentor Kowalski. Additionally, it uses an almost real-time pace that highlights the experiential dimensions of her plight and helps to situate us in close alignment with Stone. Since we share her lack of knowledge and isolation from others, the film’s emotions are amplified by the radically limited narrative perspective and structure.

As an aside, the other parallel I’ve seen others make is to videogames, which often focus on one character’s limited (often first-person) perspective on global calamities. There are certainly structural parallels here between games and Gravity‘s plot structure, with small real-time missions that Stone must undertake in the larger quest for survival, and the first act could be viewed as the tutorial level with Kowalski’s knowing mentorship teaching the hero how to work the controls. But I see the game parallel as more of a coincidence than inspiration, as the film lacks the sense of play and exploration that typify most games—my viewing experience was one of strapped-in emotional intensity much more than the ludic freedom and engagement that I feel while gaming.

It’s interesting that the filmmakers have chosen to slightly expand the narrative scope with an associated paratext, but it does not provide a vision of the larger disaster that we might expect. I have not seen the short film Aningaaq, and thus am relying on the details in critic Neil Young’s review, but based on Young’s account, the short portrays the other side of Stone’s radio conversation while stranded on the Chinese space station from the perspective of the Inuit fisherman in Greenland. Speaking from one of the most isolated places on Earth, this short film is seemingly not concerned with the larger scope of the disaster or filling in the gaps in the macrostory that exceed Stone’s knowledge; instead, it shows a random attempt at human connection between someone in the midst of an enormous set of disastrous events and someone wholly outside of them. Without seeing the film, I can’t comment on how this narrative addition works, but I think it’s telling that the Cuaróns chose this subject for narrative extension, which reinforces the structure of isolation and narrow perspective rather than expanding on the core disaster story.

Having read much of the post-release Gravity criticism, I certainly agree that the film’s remarkable visual style, embrace of floating long takes, shifts in visual perspective, motivated use of 3D, and thematic emphasis on isolation and survival all work to create its intense emotional response. But I think this added dimension of radically limited storytelling structure and genre revisionism is a facet of the film’s effectiveness that has been overlooked. Like Film Crit Hulk, I will not grant that Gravity‘s script is its weak link, but rather regard it as its hidden strength, providing an underlying story structure and unique set of narrative limits that generate the film’s emotional power.

12 Responses to “Gravity and the Power of Narrative Limits”

  1. Hey Jason, nice to read your thoughts on this film, which I also saw and enjoyed over the weekend. Your observations about the film’s genre resonate in a lot of ways with some of the things I’ve been thinking about it. In particular, the lack of fit with sci-fi, survival film, or disaster film conventions goes hand in hand, I think, with what I see as an almost environmentalist perspective in the film, one that is less about outer space than about our global moment of crisis, but seen from a quite unexpected angle: Gravity is a “post-space age” film in an emphatic sense, one cognizant of environmental crises that cannot be addressed through the rocket-ship rhetorics of the Cold War era and beholden to the very concrete setbacks to space-age ideologies marked by Challenger, MIR, and lost Mars rovers, etc. The intense materiality of outdated technologies, all programmed in a foreign language, the persistence of umbilical cord-like hindrances at every turn, and Sandra Bullock’s less-than-glamorous, aged appearance in the film really brought this feeling of the space age’s exhaustion home to me. Again, this feeling derives in many respects from the film’s departure from available genre conventions, and it made the film a unique narrative and affective experience for me. (I agree with you, by the way, that watching this film was nothing like playing a video game; I experienced anything but a feeling of ludic freedom…).

    • Great point, Shane! You could even extend it by highlighting how the disaster was triggered by technological waste, and the fact that even outer space is too crowded to accommodate our modern junk.

      • Exactly. Maybe I’ll find some time to write about the film (much like you, apparently, this is the first film in a while that has made me really want to write about it). If i do, I’ll let you know.

  2. Another great post Jason. There’s one thing that bothers me. It’s about that ‘motivated use of 3D.’ As much as I acknowledge the added value of watching Gravity on an IMAX size screen (as the film oscillates between two extremes of space – claustrophobic and infinite), I can’t really see how 3D contributes to the experience. On the contrary, it’s layered, very 2D-like visuals (2D layers arranged in the depth of field), actually weaken the beautiful and otherwise finally very realistic CGI. On a more general note, it feels like 3D qualifies automatically as motivated for movies we love, while less engaging and less immersive experiences make the weakness of the technology noticeable and therefore disturbing.

    • To me, the 3D was generally effective in conveying the scope of the space (whether outer or interiors). I found the floating teardrops quite beautiful, and that image alone motivated the use of 3D!

      • Hmm.. maybe I just expect too much from 3D (something beyond aesthetic attraction, perhaps ‘narrative motivation’ – just as it happened with other film language elements like sound, colour, etc.).

  3. One of the first things I thought as I watched this film was “Is this science fiction?” It *felt* like science fiction, what with the outerspace setting, the space suits, the ships, the fight for survival. But what was so intriguing to me about this movie is that these (series of unfortunate) events are plausible. Not that I don’t get wrapped up in science fiction and fantasy, I do. But it was something about the film’s plausbility, combined with the 3D, that made it very powerful for me. And now, thanks to this post, I know about that short film Aningaaq. Where can we see this?

    • Alas, it sounds like unless you happen into a screening of We’re the Millers (shudder) that features the short, we’ll have to wait for the film’s video release.

      And I agree that the plausibility of the film’s events (highly unlikely, and scientifically stretching no doubt) added to its power, as it both highlights how fantastic current technological possibilities are, and how that technology already puts people in such terrifying scenarios.

  4. 10 Philip

    “The only other mainstream example of a disaster movie told with the limited scope of a survival film that I can think of is Signs”

    — what about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD?

    • I wouldn’t call LIVING DEAD a “disaster movie” – the survival horror film commonly uses this limited perspective, but in GRAVITY, the “monster” is simply a technological accident. This seems like an important distinction to me in terms of how we emotionally engage.

  5. 12 bill mckibben

    I really loved that strange, dreamy interlude where she’s talking with someone on earth on a phone, or thinks she is, and you can hear a dog. There’s something so powerful about that being the only intrusion on the vacuum of space

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